George Hibberd dreamt of being a pilot since childhood, but gave it up over climate concerns. Image: Supplied
We’ve all thought about changing careers. But few can boast a pivot as dramatic as that of George Hibberd, who has swapped flying easyJet planes for a life of roadblocks and arrests with Just Stop Oil.
He had harboured dreams of flying since childhood, and spent years working his way to the cockpit, racking up over £100,000 of training debt.
Fast forward just four years since gaining his licence and Hibberd has found himself convicted and fined for blocking roads. Last week he was one of 13 Just Stop Oil protesters arrested for a slow-walking protest in London.
Climate activists, and in particular Just Stop Oil, have found themselves in the crosshairs of the police, courts, politicians and media. And yet, their ranks are made up of people like Hibberd, giving up successful careers to be criminalised and pilloried. It’s worth understanding why.
“I always wanted to be a pilot from like seven years old,” Hibberd says. Initially, the goal was the RAF, and he spent time in the volunteer reserves while at university. But “going somewhere where everyone wants to kill you” lost its appeal, and he decided to become a commercial pilot.
Becoming a pilot is competitive. Originally applying to Virgin, George was accepted by easyJet in January 2018. After training which included a year and a half in New Zealand, he qualified as a pilot in November 2019 – by coincidence at the same time as Extinction Rebellion were springing into the public consciousness.
“The flying itself was incredible. The views were unbelievable, the freedom. I guess to an extent the social status of it as well,” he says.
“It was a little inconvenient but I truly believed that the airline industry was doing everything that it could and I really bought into the idea of when my airline said ‘we offset 100 per cent of our emissions’ I thought, ‘oh great, aviation is carbon neutral already’.”
After the pandemic, he returned to work but found something had changed. He started speaking up about the climate, challenging his bosses, and working within his union to bring about a workers’ assembly.
He also realised how seriously easyJet took climate activism. In one security course given to staff, Hibberd recalls, environmental activism was listed at the number two threat behind religious extremism. Hibberd and his colleagues were shown a picture of James Brown, the former paralympian, sitting on top of a plane at London City Airport in 2019 as part of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Brown was jailed for a year for the direct action. easyJet said its training teaches pilots and crew how to act when anybody breaks into airside parts of airports.
Work had begun to take notice, he realised. One day in August 2021 he received a phone call from easyJet’s COO saying he had been reported under the company’s internal Speak Up, Speak Out policy – which allows staff to report colleagues who may be depressed, selling secrets, or radicalised.
EasyJet’s website says the policy “enables concerns to be raised confidentially”, and adds: “Our Just culture encourages anyone that has a serious concern about any aspect of our business to come forward and voice those concerns.”
Hibberd says the incident “was quite amusing but also quite disconcerting and made me feel really insecure in the workplace”.
While this was going on, he had begun having counselling for what he realised was climate anxiety.
“I’ve been trying to juggle these two very polarised parts of me, where one part was in Extinction Rebellion and going to the odd protest, and the other half was going to work and chucking out eight tonnes of gas into the atmosphere every day,” he says.
“It just got to the point where the crisis was getting worse and worse, the conflict was getting greater.”
As a result, Hibberd had been losing sleep before work and having to call in sick – falling asleep at the controls is, understandably, frowned upon. It all came to a head in spring 2022, when Hibberd went on long-term sick leave to try and sort out the conflict he was facing.
What he did in the meantime was throw himself into Just Stop Oil, whose orange t-shirts emerged in that summer. Hibberd was helping to organise talks and mobilise communities.
The logic behind this, he says, is that taking action helps relieve climate anxiety. And it might just make a difference. But his activism has also involved arrests. While on leave, he was nicked twice for road-blocking protest, but didn’t tell easyJet. December 2022 rolled around and his state of mind hadn’t improved. He wasn’t ‘fixed’ so says he was asked to leave, handed his ID in, and was given medical retirement.
Behind him, over a hundred thousands pounds of debt. Ahead of him, court cases. One of these, for blocking a road outside Harrods, saw him fined £200. He has another case coming up in September.
Life is very different now. Hibberd earns a monthly sum from Just Stop Oil. As a pilot, he took home around £1,800 each month as a third of his wages went on paying off his training loans. He now gets what he describes as “very meagre expenses” of £1,300 a month.
His activism is continuing. Last week, he was one of 13 arrested for slowly walking down a road – in breach of a section 12 order placed by the Met – in the week after the coronation, one of a number of high-profile cases in the wake of new anti-protest laws.
“I miss the flying,” Hibberd says. “I miss having fulfilled a dream and being able to live that dream. But I don’t miss having that massive conflict at work.”
An easyJet spokesperson told The Big Issue: “The health and wellbeing of our people is our highest priority. We will always support any pilot in their decision not to operate if they do not feel able to. We have a range of measures in place to offer support including an Employee Assistance Programme, occupational health provision, mental health first aid and company paid sick leave.”
The spokesperson added: “easyJet is making real and significant steps towards the decarbonisation of our operations and to ultimately achieve zero carbon emission flying across Europe. We have committed to reaching net zero by 2050 and our roadmap is aligned with the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi)’s decarbonisation trajectory for aviation, who have also validated our interim carbon emissions intensity reduction target for 2035.
“In the short to medium term, we are actively mitigating our impact on the environment through continued fleet renewal, efficient operations, advocating for airspace modernisation and the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel and our pilots can make an important positive contribution to permanent emissions reduction in the way they fly our aircraft.
“In the longer term, our ambition is to achieve zero carbon emissions flying and we’re actively working with our partners, including Airbus and Rolls-Royce, to advance hydrogen technology. Since 2000, over a 20-year period, we have already reduced our carbon emissions per passenger, per kilometre by a third and we continue to work towards reducing this further, every day.”