“Highly targeted” drone flights “designed to bring maximum disruption” at Gatwick
Transport secretary says culprit faces jail when caught
Police and the armed forces are considering shooting down a drone at London’s Gatwick Airport, more than 24 hours after operations were suspended following reports of two unmanned objects flying over the airfield.
Flights in and out of the airport were suspended at about 9pm on Wednesday after two drones were sighted near the airfield, with hundreds of flights cancelled and more than 120,000 passengers affected.
Disruption continued throughout Thursday and airport bosses announced at about 9.30pm that the runway would remain closed, with activity from what was believed to be “a modified, professionally prepared drone” detected within the last hour.
Chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe described the situation going into Friday as “fluid”, as scores of passengers prepared to bed down in terminals overnight, and warned flights could continue to be cancelled.
He added: “I think what’s clear from the last 24 hours is that drones are a UK aviation issue, or even an international aviation issue.
“We have had the police, we have had the military seeking to bring this drone down for the last 24 hours and to date that has not been successful.
“So Gatwick Airport is still closed, it’s closed for the rest of this evening and our intention is to review on an ongoing basis whether we can open tomorrow.
“But we are working up contingency plans all the way through to no flights tomorrow.”
Gatwick, which is used by more than 40 million passengers each year and is Britain’s second-biggest airport after Heathrow, briefly reopened at about 3am on Thursday – but shut once more just 45 minutes later.
The drone flights are “highly targeted” and have “been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas”, its chief executive officer Stewart Wingate said in a statement.
He added: “It cannot be right that drones can close a vital part of our national infrastructure in this way. This is obviously a relatively new technology and we need to think through together the right solutions to make sure it cannot happen again.”
Wingate said he could not say with any certainty when services could be expected to return to normal.
“Until we are confident that the issue has been resolved it would clearly not be in the interests of passengers to do so as we could be jeopardising their safety,” his statement read.
Speaking in Westminster, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said night-flight restrictions would be lifted in some airports to help ease pressure.
He told Sky News: “We’re doing everything we can to make arrangements with other airports to get passengers incoming into the UK, but also to give passengers a chance to get out of the UK as quickly as possible.
“One of the things we’re going to be doing is temporarily lifting the night-flight restrictions at other airports so more planes can get into and out of the country.
“Apologies for the residents affected, but it’s right and proper that we try and sort people’s Christmases out.
“It’s likely to be other London airports but it will only be tonight. We will review the situation again tomorrow but we’re looking to get people away.”
Grayling said there was no known motive for the pilot of the “commercial” drone and it was “clearly” being flown by someone who wanted to disrupt Gatwick and knew they were breaking the law.
“I have a very clear message to give to whoever’s doing this – there’s a five-year jail sentence for this kind of action and anyone who’s doing this should expect to go to jail for many years,” the cabinet minister added.
He was unable to say whether the perpetrators were close to being caught but added: “There’s a huge amount of effort going on – we’ve got up-to date-technology, we’ve brought special technology into Gatwick to try and track this down.
“There’s a huge police effort to try and catch the perpetrators. At the end of the day, it’s going to be for the airports and for Nats – the air traffic control monitors – to decide when the airport is safe to open.”
Passengers are advised to check the status of their flight before they travel to the airport, amid chaotic scenes as thousands remain stranded in terminal buildings.
Over 110,000 were due to depart and arrive through Gatwick on Thursday, the airport said. A total of 633 out of 760 outbound flights were cancelled, while budget airline EasyJet axed all of its services.
“We expect disruption to continue into tomorrow and so advise all customers flying to and from London Gatwick tomorrow to check the status of their flight,” a spokesman for the airline said.
On Wednesday, travellers due to take off reported planes being stuck on the airport’s apron for more than an hour.
Sussex Police confirmed officers continue to investigate, along with officers from neighbouring Surrey Police, and ruled out any links to terror.
Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said: “We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport. However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror-related.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley told reporters late on Thursday there had been over 50 sightings of a drone and that officers were considering shooting it down.
Speaking outside the airport’s South Terminal, he said: “We don’t know what the drone specification is.
“Our working assumption is it’s larger than what someone might buy online, we think it may have been adapted and developed.
“We’re working through CCTV footage and trying to identify the make and model.”
DCS Tingley said police were investigating “a number of persons of interest” and urged anyone with pictures of the drone to send them on to police.
“We will do what we can to take that drone out of the sky and remove that disruption so we can get Gatwick back to the norm,” he added.
“One of the options is to use firearms officers if that presents itself – they have been out on the ground today and that’s a consideration and a tactical option that is open to us.
“We have to take into consideration other people that may be in range and the impact of firing at a drone.”
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the military had been brought in on Thursday afternoon to help officers.
Although he declined to specify what assistance would be offered, he said: “The armed forces have a range of unique capabilities and this isn’t something we would usually deploy, but we are there to assist and do everything we can so that they are in a position to open the airport at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Pictures from the scene on Thursday morning showed Sussex Police’s force’s helicopter flying near the runway.
Passengers vented their anger on social media as the situation developed, with many reporting “freezing” conditions and exhaustion amid the chaos.
Twitter user Seun Olayanju posted: “@AerLingus currently stuck at Gatwick waiting for the heavily delayed E10249 to Dublin. Please can you confirm if the flight will run tonight?”
Honor Ireland wrote: “Landed at Stansted when we should be at @Gatwick_Airport due to a supposed drone sighting – car is at Gatwick, fantastic! #gatwickairport”
John Belo said: “Plane should have departed an hour ago from @Gatwick_Airport – captain confirmed there are reports of a drone in the area … still waiting.”
Lyndsey Clarke, from Southend on Sea, said she was stuck on a plane for more than four hours after it was re-routed to Stansted.
The 27-year-old said passengers were then having to get taxis back to Gatwick after they were finally allowed off the aircraft.
Andri Kyprianou, from Cyprus, said she saw a pregnant woman sleeping on the floor and passengers with infants spending the night in the “freezing” South Terminal.
She said she got to the airport at 12.30am on Thursday for a 3am flight to Cyprus via Kiev, only to find it had been cancelled and the next connection in Kiev is on Sunday.
She said: “I haven’t slept since yesterday morning, we are very tired. It’s freezing, we are cold, having to wear all of these coats for extra blankets.
“There were pregnant women, one of them was sleeping on the floor. There were people with small babies in here overnight, we saw disabled people on chairs.
“There were young children sleeping on the floor.”
Luke McComiskie’s plane ended up in Manchester, 233 miles away, and he described chaotic scenes as people tried to find their way home after more than three hours stuck onboard.
The 20-year-old from Aldershot told the Press Association: “We got told there would be some arrangements with coaches for us when we get out the terminal... it was just chaos and they had only two coaches and taxis charging people £600 to get to Gatwick.”
As scores of passengers prepared to spend the night in the terminal on Thursday, with nearby hotels fully booked, Gatwick said the welfare of passengers was its “top priority”.
Additional staff would be on the ground during the night to patrol for vulnerable passengers, including those with young children and the elderly, the airport addd.
Water was also being handed out throughout the terminals and food and beverage outlets were being stocked up with fresh supplies, with heating remaining turned on throughout the night.
Drones: An increasing threat to commercial jets
What is the law around flying drones?
Earlier this year, new laws came into force which ban all drones from flying above 400ft and within 1km (0.6 miles) of airport boundaries.
Drone users who flout the height and airport boundary restrictions could face an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both.
Research funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) found that a drone weighing 400g could smash a helicopter windscreen, and one weighing 2kg could critically damage an airliner’s windscreen.
Have there been any incidents at airports in the past?
According to the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), there were already 117 near misses between manned aircraft and drones up until November this year, compared to 93 for the whole of 2017.
This is not the first time an incident involving drones has been reported at London Gatwick.
In October, it was reported that a drone “put 130 lives at risk” after nearly hitting an aircraft approaching the airport over the summer.
According to the UK Airprox Board, the flying gadget passed directly over the right wing of the Airbus A319 as it was preparing to land at the West Sussex airport in July.
Also in October, a drone collided with a commercial aircraft as it was approaching to land in Canada.
There were six passengers and two crew on the aircraft and the drone connected with its wing, but fortunately it suffered only minor damage, allowing it to land safely at Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City.
UPDATE: This article has been fully updated throughout.