Small number of flights resume at London’s Gatwick Airport after drone disruption

  • Operator of drone that disrupted operations at major airport has still not been identified
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 9:26pm

Gatwick’s runway has reopened and a limited number of planes have arrived and departed, after the airport was shut for almost 36 hours by drone sightings overhead.

The airport said “additional mitigating measures” put in place by the police and military were allowing planes to fly again, although at least 100 of the 753 scheduled flights on Friday were due to be cancelled, with planes and crews out of place, and many had already been delayed.

More than 126,000 passengers were due to fly out on Friday, after 110,000 were booked on cancelled flights on Thursday. A first arrival from China landed at about 6am and the first departure, a Norwegian Airlines flight to Lapland, took off soon after.

The operator of the drone or drones had yet to be discovered, but no further sightings had been recorded since late on Thursday, the airport said.

Sussex police said they were pursuing several lines of inquiry and an environmental protest was “a possibility”, but the force was not linking the drone or drones to terrorism. The airport’s runway was first closed after sightings at about 9pm on Wednesday.

The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, who on Thursday said “substantial drones” had caused the chaos, admitted on Friday that it was uncertain whether there was more than one. He denied he had ignored warnings, and said he was planning to hold talks with airports soon to discuss the lessons of Gatwick and try to prevent similar disruption.

Pilots’ unions, opposition politicians and other aviation bodies have called for tougher measures and immediate action, including wider exclusion zones around airports.

Grayling told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was “a new kind of attack” and the perpetrator would face a substantial jail sentence. He said it was unlikely to be the action of a foreign state, but was not ruling anything out.

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Earlier, the minister had told BBC Breakfast: “There was thought to be a small number of drones but we can’t be certain if it was one or more.

“It’s unprecedented in the world … We will have to learn very quickly from what happened … I intend to convene discussions with airports around the UK.”

He said a mixture of measures, including “military capabilities”, were in place to give passengers confidence that they could fly.

But Grayling added: “The reality is the ability to stop drones is just emerging … There certainly isn’t a straightforward, off-the-shelf, commercial solution.”

He said more measures and legislation were in motion, including “tough penalties”, but insisted: “Passengers are safe. The reason the airport was closed was because the airport was not confident it was safe. They are now.”

Gatwick continued to advise passengers to check with their airlines before they came to the airport. The airport’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe, said the airport had worked overnight to put in “additional mitigating measures” to stop the drone affecting flights.

He would not confirm the nature of the measures – which are believed to include potentially shooting down the drone, after the appearance of police snipers on Thursday – but said it was the support of the police and military that allowed operations to resume.

“They enabled me to make the decision to reopen Gatwick airport. It demonstrated that there is an awful lot more work to be done nationally and internationally to address this risk,” he told Today.

Woodroofe said the airport had been exploring anti-drone technology for more than a year, but there was “no commercial solution licensed to operate at airports which is proven to work”.

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EasyJet, the largest operator at Gatwick, said: “We are making every effort to get people to their destination at this important time of the year. We are working through the detail of our flight programme to and from London Gatwick today, but we expect disruption to continue.”

It advised all customers to check the status of their flights and said it would reimburse passengers who arranged their own comparable alternative transport.

The Civil Aviation Authority said passengers were not entitled to compensation due to the extraordinary circumstances. Grayling said he would talk to the insurance industry and hoped it would take an “enlightened view” on passengers’ claims.