Two arrested over drones at Gatwick

Passengers waiting to check in for their flights at Gatwick Airport last Friday, after the airport reopened, following its forced closure because of drone activity.
Passengers waiting to check in for their flights at Gatwick Airport last Friday, after the airport reopened, following its forced closure because of drone activity.PHOTO: REUTERS

British airport warns of delays, cancellations as it continues to recover from drone disruption

LONDON • Police have arrested a man and a woman after rogue drone operators crippled London's Gatwick Airport for three days by repeatedly flying onto the airfield, sparking a major security response.

Britain's second-largest airport was forced to close its runway in the run-up to Christmas after drones started appearing on the site south of London, in the most disruptive incursion from unmanned aerial vehicles at any major airport.

Police said they made two arrests last Friday, as part of ongoing investigations into the criminal use of drones.

No group has claimed responsibility for the disruption, which affected at least 140,000 people last Wednesday and Thursday.

The airport, which shut its runway for spells last Wednesday and Friday and for all of last Thursday, said it aimed to run a full schedule yesterday. However, it warned that passengers should expect delays and cancellations as it continues to recover from the biggest disruption since an Icelandic volcanic ash cloud in 2010.

"We continue to urge the public, passengers and the wider community around Gatwick to be vigilant," police said.

  • 50

    Number of drone sightings reported at Gatwick during the initial incidents from 9.07pm last Wednesday to 4.25pm last Thursday.

    140k

    Number of passengers affected by the airport runway closures.

    92

    Number of near misses between private drones and aircraft reported in Britain last year, triple that in 2015. 

"Our investigations are still ongoing, and our activities at the airport continue to build resilience to detect and mitigate further incursions from drones, by deploying a range of tactics," they added in a statement.

The pre-Christmas travel disruption began late last Wednesday when Gatwick was forced to cancel all flights after spotting small drones near the airfield.

Every time the airport operators sought to reopen the runway last Thursday, the drones returned.

The authorities finally regained control over the airfield after the army deployed unidentified military technology to guard the area, reassuring the airport it was safe enough to fly.

"Safety is Gatwick's top priority and we are grateful for passengers' continued patience as we work to get them to their final destination in time for Christmas," the airport said.

UNPRECEDENTED EVENT

This is an unprecedented event. There's not been anything like this anywhere in the world.

TRANSPORT SECRETARY CHRIS GRAYLING, on the Gatwick incident.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC that anti-drone technologies had been deployed at Gatwick.

"This is an unprecedented event. There's not been anything like this anywhere in the world," he said.

The British Airline Pilots' Association said it was extremely concerned at the continuing risk of a drone collision and that unauthorised aircraft could fly around Gatwick's perimeter or obstruct flight paths.

Almost 50 drone sightings had been reported at the airport during the initial incidents from 9.07pm last Wednesday to 4.25pm last Thursday, Sussex police said, though some reports may have been duplicates.

The drone sightings caused misery for travellers, many sleeping on the airport floor as they searched for alternative routes to holidays and Christmas family gatherings.

Gatwick is also the biggest hub for EasyJet. It is also a focus for long-distance leisure flights by British Airways. Virgin Atlantic Airways, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Thomas Cook and TUI are major operators there as well. Ryanair Holdings has a limited presence.

In Britain, the number of near misses between private drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and last year, with 92 incidents recorded last year.

Gatwick has only one runway, offering little scope to cram in more flights to alleviate backlogged itineraries.

The drone flights were "highly targeted" and designed to deliver maximum disruption in the days before Christmas, according to Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 23, 2018, with the headline 'Two arrested over drones at Gatwick'. Print Edition | Subscribe