LONDON • Drones flying near London's Gatwick airport have grounded flights, causing chaos for tens of thousands of Christmas travellers in what the authorities said was a reckless attempt to cripple Britain's second busiest airport.
Flights were halted at Gatwick at 2103 GMT on Wednesday (5.03am in Singapore yesterday) after two drones were spotted flying near its airfield, triggering the biggest disruption to its operations since a volcanic ash cloud grounded flights in 2010.
As of press time, the airport was still shut down.
Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said those flying the drones were "irresponsible and completely unacceptable" and voiced sympathy for people having their travel plans upset just days before Christmas.
The airport and Gatwick's biggest airline easyJet told passengers to check before travelling to the airport as several thousand people waited there in chaotic scenes.
"It's really busy. People are sitting everywhere, on the stairs, on the floors," said passenger Ani Kochiashvili, who was booked onto a Wednesday evening flight.
Police said more than 20 units were searching for the drone operators yesterday, when the airport had expected to handle around 115,000 passengers.
"At the moment, we're still getting sightings of the drones in and around the airfield," Gatwick Policing Airport Commander Justin Burtenshaw told the BBC. Sussex regional police said public safety was paramount, adding in a statement: "There are no indications to suggest this is terror-related."
Gatwick, which lies 50km south of London, gave no indication on when it would reopen and described the situation as an "ongoing incident".
There has been an increase in near-collisions by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets, heightening concerns for safety across the aviation industry in recent years.
The number of near-misses between private drones and aircraft in Britain more than tripled between 2015 and last year, when 92 incidents were recorded, according to the UK Airprox Board.
Gatwick chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe warned that the knock-on effects from the airport closure would last for more than 24 hours. He described one of the drones as a heavy industrial model. "It's definitely not a standard, off-the-shelf type drone. Given what has happened, I definitely believe it is a deliberate act, yes," he said on BBC radio.
Under British law it is illegal to fly drones within 1km of an airport boundary. The offence is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Gatwick apologised on Twitter to affected passengers, adding that safety was its "foremost priority".
Tens of thousands of passengers were affected, with hundreds of thousands of journeys likely to be disrupted in the coming days, the airport said.
Gatwick, which competes with Europe's busiest airport, Heathrow, west of London, had previously said Sunday would be its busiest day of the festive period.
Passengers took to Twitter to share their stories. One waiting at the airport yesterday said: "At Gatwick airport, drone chaos, surprisingly good-natured, but complete mayhem."