LONDON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Passengers flying in and out of London Gatwick will face at least another 24 hours of disruption after several drone sightings forced Britain's second busiest airport to shut its runway, causing delays to thousands of Christmas travellers.
The authorities at Gatwick halted flights at 2200 GMT on Wednesday (6am Thursday Singapore time) after two drones were spotted flying near its airfield. Over 20 police units were searching for the drone operators on Thursday (Dec 20), when the airport had expected to handle around 115,000 passengers.
Gatwick's chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe could not say when flights would resume and warned that the knock-on effects from the airport closure would last for more than 24 hours.
Police and airport reports talk of sightings of more than one drone. Woodroofe described one of the drones as a heavy industrial drone.
"It's definitely not a standard, off-the-shelf type drone," he said on BBC radio. "Given what has happened I definitely believe it is a deliberate act, yes." The airport and Gatwick's biggest airline easyJet told passengers to check before travelling to the airport.
"We also have the helicopter up in the air but the police advice is that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets," Woodroofe said.
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".
Gatwick said at least 20,000 passengers had already been affected with hundreds of thousands of journeys likely to be disrupted in the coming days.
Gatwick, which lies 50km south of London and competes with Europe's busiest airport, Heathrow, west of London, had previously said Sunday would be its busiest day of the festive period.
An increase in near collisions by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets has fuelled safety concerns in the aviation industry 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.
Dubai International Airport shut down temporarily in 2016 after suspected drone activity, while airspace around Wellington, New Zealand, was closed for 30 minutes this year after a craft was spotted flying close to the runway.
And Grupo Aeromexico SAB last week said was investigating whether a drone slammed into a Boeing Co 737 aircraft as the plane approached Tijuana, Mexico. The jet sustained damage to its nose, but landed safely.
“In the past, trying to skirt around birds was hard enough and now you’ve got a different kind of bird made out of metal or plastic,” said Mr Mohshin Aziz, an aviation analyst at Maybank Investment Bank Bhd in Kuala Lumpur.
“A drone strike is far, far more damaging than a bird strike.
There were multiple reports of drone sightings since the initial report of two drones late on Wednesday, Gatwick said. The runway briefly appeared to reopen on Thursday morning before the drones were spotted again.
"These drones have disappeared and then reappeared all night and are, as I speak to you, are on our airfield now," Woodroofe said on BBC radio.
Sussex Police said in a statement that they were continuing to assist airport security teams in the search, with Gatwick saying up to 20 units from two police forces were scouring the area around Gatwick.
Ani Kochiashvili, who had been due to fly to Tbilisi, Georgia, on Wednesday, was waiting in Gatwick's departure lounge on Thursday. She spent six hours overnight sitting on a plane which did not take off.
"I'm very annoyed because I'm with two kids, a three-month-old and three-year-old. They require a lot of space and food and changing and all that, and the airport is crazy busy so it's challenging. There's literally zero information being shared," she told Reuters by phone.
Passengers took to Twitter to share their stories.
One waiting at the airport on Thursday said: "At Gatwick Airport, drone chaos, surprisingly good natured, but complete mayhem."