Tens of thousands of passengers are facing major disruption after a drone attack grounded flights. Gatwick airport said 11,000 passengers on 760 flights were delayed when authorities noticed two devices flying over the perimeter fence. Gatwick closed its runway Wednesday night just after 9pm, when the drones were spotted, in what police say is a deliberate act of disruption. The runway briefly opened in the early hours of the morning, but closed again 45 minutes later when another drone was spotted. Police were unable to shoot the drone down because of the risk from stray bullets, but Gatwick officials said the police were looking for the operator of the drone.
About 10,000 passengers were affected overnight Wednesday and Gatwick said 11,000 people were due to take off or land at the airport on Thursday. Incoming planes were diverted to other airports including Heathrow, Luton, Birmingham and Manchester. Passengers have been waiting in Gatwick’s terminal for updates, whilst others reported being stuck on grounded planes for hours. A spokesperson for Gatwick said extra staff had been brought in and the airport were providing food and water to those who needed it.
As drones are still quite new, the law around their use is constantly evolving, the UK’s new “Drone Code” laws were introduced this summer, with a ban on people flying drones above 120m and within 1km of an airport or airfield. The new laws came into effect on 30 July 2018, and saw legal responsibility put solely on the user of the drone. Anyone who endangers an aircraft will risk up to five years in prison.
The new laws come hot on the heels of more than a little misbehaviour from drone users in recent years. Earlier this year a drone came within a meagre six metres of crashing into a plane departing from Luton Airport in May. Meanwhile, back in July 2017, another drone was said to put “130 lives at risk” thanks to a near miss with a plane arriving at Gatwick. According to UK Airprox Board, there have been over 100 incidents involving drones this year alone.
The transport minister, Elizabeth Sugg, said: “The police are working to bring the drone down, and I am confident that they will do so … Our priority is to get that airport open as safely as possible so that people can fly off on their Christmas breaks, or people who are coming in to visit friends and family.”
Justin Burtenshaw, Gatwick airport’s policing commander who is in charge of trying to catch the operator or operators of the drones, told the BBC: “Each time we believe we get close to the operator, the drone disappears. When we look to reopen the airfield, the drone reappears, so I’m absolutely convinced it is a deliberate act to disrupt Gatwick Airport. There has been no intelligence that this is going to happen. This is just a random act that has happened overnight. I’m convinced we will capture the operator. It is a painstaking thing. The bigger the drone the further the reach of the operator so it is a difficult and challenging thing to locate them. But I’ve got teams and investigators looking at how we do that and I’m confident we will.”