Drone activity forces closure of London's Gatwick Airport

December 21, 2018 09:31
Passengers wait around in a terminal building at Gatwick Airport on Thursday after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport. Photo: Reuters

London's Gatwick Airport remained closed on Thursday, leaving thousands of passengers stranded ahead of Christmas, as multiple drone sightings near the airfield caused an aviation safety scare.

Flights were first halted at 2103 GMT the previous day after two drones were spotted in the skies near the airport, which is Britain's second busiest after London Heathrow, Reuters reports.

Every time the airport tried to reopen the runway on Thursday, large drones reappeared near the airfield, prompting authorities to keep the airport closed.

Police hunted unsuccessfully for the operators of the drones, but said there was no indication of a terrorism motive behind the devices, which triggered the biggest disruption at Gatwick since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010.

Europe’s air traffic control agency Eurocontrol said the airport will remain closed until 0600 GMT on Friday.

The armed forces were deployed to help resolve the situation.

“We are there to assist and do everything we can,” Defence Minister Gavin Williamson told reporters.

Drones were seen as recently as the last hour, a Gatwick spokesman said at about 2200 GMT on Thursday, more than 24 hours after their first sighting.

The airport said flights will remain shut down for the rest of the evening on a day when 115,000 people were scheduled to pass through, many en route to seasonal breaks.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman condemned the standoff as “irresponsible and completely unacceptable”.

Police said more than 20 units were hunting the operators near Gatwick airport.

Transport minister Chris Grayling said it was clearly a deliberate act. “This is a commercial-sized drone,” he said. “Every time Gatwick tries to re-open the runway, the drones reappear.”

It is illegal to fly drones within 1 km of a British airport boundary, and the offense is punishable by five years in prison.

Even after Gatwick re-opens, the backlog and disruption are expected to last for days, Reuters noted.

With a surge in public enthusiasm for drones, there has been an increase in near-collisions by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets in recent years.

The number of near misses between private drones and aircraft in Britain more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year, according to the UK Airprox Board regulator.

Richard Parker, head of air traffic management technology firm Altitude Angel, said this was the first time a major airport had been hit by such a sustained and deliberate incursion into its airspace.

“It’s sophisticated, not from a technology side, but it’s organized. People have charged lots of batteries, and are deliberately trying to avoid being caught, probably by driving around to different locations,” he told Reuters.

“It really is unprecedented.”

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