Protesters at EBACE 2023
Eco-protesters breached the security fence at the EBACE static display area and handcuffed themselves aircraft, causing a disruption at the show. (Photo: David McIntosh)

Private Jet Protesters Breach Geneva Airport Secure Zone

Environmental activists handcuffed themselves to aircraft on display at a business aviation convention.

Protestors breached security at Switzerland’s Geneva Airport at about 11:30 a.m. on May 23, knocking down fencing around the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE) aircraft park and handcuffing themselves to business jets on display. The protesters wore fluorescent-green safety vests marked with the “ban private jets” statement that they chanted as they rushed past airport police.

Some of the protesters were stopped and held on the ground by police, while others made it into the static park. Seven protestors handcuffed themselves to a Gulfstream on static display, with three attached to the nose gear and four on the jet’s cabin entry door handrails, while others secured themselves to other aircraft on display.

“This is a completely unacceptable form of protest,” Ed Bolen and Juergen Wiese—the leaders of EBACE organizers the National Business Aviation Association and the European Business Aviation Association, respectively—said in a joint statement. “We condemn the action, and the threat it has posed to the safety and security of exhibiting companies and EBACE attendees, and others at Geneva Airport.

“Moreover, today’s disruption ignores the fact that business aviation is deeply committed to climate action. This is an industry that has cut its carbon emissions by 40 percent over the past 40 years, is continually reducing emissions today, and is collectively focused on achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. We as an industry are open to constructive dialogue about the industry’s sustainability leadership, and we regret the protesters’ unfortunate decision to disregard an opportunity for that dialogue to take place.”

The airport was temporarily shut down at around 11:45 a.m. in response to the security breach, with takeoffs and landings briefly halted and aircraft having to hold and burn more fuel than would have been the case had the protests not happened. Static display visitors were not allowed to leave and had to wait about an hour before being released to get on buses back to the exhibit hall. Some visitors reported breathing fumes from pepper spray presumably used by the police against protesters. 

In a written statement, Geneva Airport officials said that "due to an incursion on the tarmac air traffic was temporarily interrupted." The statement said flights were allowed to resume progressively from around 12:40 p.m., with normal service restored by around 1:45 p.m. The protests were believed to have delayed more than 20 flights and caused at least a half dozen to be diverted. A spokeswoman for air traffic control agency Skyguide said protesters had not accessed the runway during the incident.

Police rounded up the protesters and loaded them on buses and drove them away from the airport. After releasing visitors, the static display was cleared of all people before reopening shortly thereafter.

According to a spokeswoman for Geneva police, around 80 protestors were on-site. She did not confirm what legal action those detained might face for the breach of airport security. Geneva Airport officials were approached to comment further on the incident but did not respond by press time.

Environmental group Greenpeace claimed that 100 or so protesters had been involved in the demonstration. It said they came from some 17 countries, and protest groups included Stay Grounded, Extinction Rebellion, and Scientist Rebellion.

Following the security breach, a major EBACE exhibitor canceled an event scheduled for that evening. A preplanned and sanctioned protest activity had been scheduled for that afternoon, but the exhibitor didn't cancel its plans until after the breach occurred. 

Eric Schouten, CEO and founder of Dyami Security Services, provided NBAA and EBAA with a risk assessment about potential protests ahead of this year's convention. The former Dutch intelligence services officer told BJT that he had expected an unofficial protest during the show but that he was surprised that so many protesters had been involved. He added that because the protesters had come from so many countries, it was harder to gather accurate intelligence and prepare security plans.

The task of assessing the threats posed by protest movements, Schouten said, has become more difficult because groups are aware they are being monitored and have become increasingly sophisticated in counter-intelligence measures. Giving the example of the recent disruption of the EBAA Air Ops event in Brussels and the invasion of the business aviation enclave on the east side of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, he warned that the industry has to be ready to react to further waves of protest.

Schouten advised NBAA and EBAA to facilitate an official protest during the EBACE show so that demonstrators feel that their concerns about the environment are heard. "It's important to agree to give them a platform or they will go underground and that can be more dangerous," he concluded.