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Gatwick shut down again, and re-opens again, as disruption drones on

written by John Walton | December 22, 2018

File image of Gatwick Airport.

After a day of attempting to return to normal, given the number of flights disrupted by unknown individuals operating drones in proximity to London’s Gatwick Airport, the airfield was again closed due to drone activity at approximately 1700 on Friday UK time, reopening approximately an hour later.

“Flights have now resumed. Airfield movements were suspended while we investigated this as safety remains our main priority,” the airport said in a statement.

“The military measures we have in place at the airport have provided us with reassurance necessary to re-open our airfield.”

A combined police-military operation codenamed Operation Trebor was underway at and around the airport throughout Friday.

Dozens upon dozens of flights were inbound to Gatwick at the time of the closure, with many diverting to alternate airports or even returning to their points of origin. Criticism of the amount and timeliness of information from official sources continued, given that flight tracking websites were providing substantially more information, and at a more granular level, to passengers than most airlines or other official channels.

FlightRadar24, for example, highlighted the number of airlines of all stripes with aircraft inbound to Gatwick at the time of the shutdown.

EasyJet, Gatwick’s largest operator, noted that “Following reports of a potential incident with unauthorised drones at Gatwick Airport, operations on the runway have been suspended and we are currently diverting flights to other airports, while investigations are undertaken.”

Earlier in the evening UK time, European air traffic control authority Eurocontrol noted in updates to pilots that arrivals were “slowly improving with an increased acceptance rate”, later updated to note that “another drone [was] sighted resulting in a 0-rate initially until 2100 UTC”, with “high delays”.

Communication through official channels has been less than ideal, with updates reaching social media of passengers noting their aircraft were being held on runways well in advance of official statements from the airport or air traffic control, let alone any government point of contact.

Indeed, the government response was roundly criticised both within and outside the UK, and the message outside the aviation community is largely asking questions about why governments do not have a more robust plan than simply shutting a major airport in the event of malicious drone activity.

Investigations into the identity of the drone operator — or operators, which continues to be the prevailing theory — have as yet not achieved results.

Many within the aviation community have highlighted how much disruption has been caused simply by drone operators seemingly wishing to interfere with normal airport operations rather than actively approaching or attempting to intercept aircraft.

Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry of Sussex Police, the local force in the area in which Gatwick Airport is located, noted that: “The number of options now available to help us detect and mitigate the threat from the drone has given us increased confidence in keeping people safe. This has been a particularly challenging situation. We have looked at everything possible that we can deploy to mitigate this threat and we have a range of measures, of differing levels of sophistication, in place which puts us in a much better position. We are being supported by Surrey Police and Metropolitan Police, as well as the military.”

“I cannot guarantee that another drone isn’t going to pop up and disrupt the airport,” Barry said, before the Friday night drone event.

“The situation is being kept under review but we are in a much more positive situation than yesterday. The runway is open and we hope to keep it that way. We are working very closely with Gatwick Airport Limited and the Civil Aviation Authority and are in close consultation with the government and other agencies in an effort to keep people safe.

“We have significantly increased our police presence to support the operation,” Barry noted.

“We are now actively carrying out a criminal investigation and have a number of lines of enquiry. This has been a deliberate act to endanger the airfield and aircraft, a really serious offence that carries significant sentences, and we are doing all we can to find those responsible.”

In a rather eyewatering coincidence, the UK Department for Transport published on Thursday its “Showcase of ‘Future of Aviation Security’ Innovations”.

Secretary of state for transport Chris Grayling lifted restrictions on nighttime operations to other UK airports on Thursday and into Friday in order to enable schedule recovery efforts after the Thursday reopening of Gatwick, and indeed a substantial portion of the airport’s daily schedule was able to be operated on Friday prior to the appearance once more of drones over the airport.

These recovery efforts are complicated by the nature of traffic to and from Gatwick. It’s not just the short-haul network for which Gatwick is renowned, and which makes up the majority of traffic from Britain’s second airport.

It’s the origin-and-destination traffic from a substantial part of the world, and especially for those airlines whose budget may not stretch to acquiring a gold-dust-like London Heathrow slot, but that wish to serve diaspora communities and connecting traffic nonetheless.

Carriers like Rwandair, for example, have few contingency options in the event of disruption.


Earlier in the day, the airport was keen to emphasise the measures put in place.

“Overnight we have been able to work with partners, including Government agencies and the Military to put measures in place which have provided the confidence we needed to re-open the runway and ensure the safety of passengers, which remains our priority,” it said in a statement.

“We continue to provide welfare and information to all disrupted passengers who are at the airport and have had teams in throughout the night,” the airport highlighted. “Our priority today is to get our operation back on track so that people can be where they need to be for Christmas, and we will update as more information becomes available throughout the day.”

“On behalf of everyone at Gatwick I would like to repeat how sorry we are for the inconvenience this criminal behaviour has caused passengers and we share their real anger and frustration that it has happened,” said chief executive officer Stewart Wingate.

“This is a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas. We are working very closely with the police and the security services to try to resolve this for passengers.”

“We hope passengers appreciate that we must and will always prioritise their safety over everything else. We are all working flat out to minimise inconvenience and have additional staff in both terminals assisting passengers who are waiting,” Wingate said.

“We are working hard with both the police and Government agencies as we seek to resolve this situation. We know that everyone, including Government, appreciates the severity of the situation and are very grateful for the active role that the police are taking to try and resolve this. We all recognise the urgent need to take the necessary steps that can lead to services getting back to normal as quickly as possible.”

More widely, Wingate noted, “although not for today, these events obviously highlight a wider strategic challenge for aviation in this country which we need to address together with speed – the aviation industry, Government and all the other relevant authorities. 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.”


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