On the Wednesday and Thursday before Christmas, the UK’s second busiest airport, London Gatwick, was completely closed after one or more drones of what UK aviation minister Liz Sugg called “industrial specification” were flown in critical flightpaths and over the airport.
As night falls over the UK on Thursday, the airport is still closed, with armed forces being deployed to utilise what defence secretary Gavin Williamson called a “unique military capacity”. Night flight restrictions at other UK airports are being lifted to ameliorate the shutdown,
The situation appears to be substantially more serious than an amateur drone user not paying attention to instructions, with reports of multiple UAVs, disruption spread over two days, and with the operator or operators seemingly moving frequently to evade detection and capture by authorities.
“There is significant disruption, as a result of what appears to be a deliberate attempt to disrupt flights,” the airport said in a statement.
“On behalf of everyone at Gatwick I would like to repeat how sorry we are for the inconvenience this criminal behaviour has caused passengers…" Read the full statement from our CEO, Stewart Wingate. https://t.co/M47tA37itJ pic.twitter.com/FB5nHOlHe5
— Gatwick Airport LGW (@Gatwick_Airport) December 20, 2018
Airport information suggests that over 110,000 passengers were due to fly on some 760 flights on Thursday, in addition to to the 10,000 passengers whose flights were disrupted on Wednesday.
“Following reports of two drones flying over the Gatwick Airport airfield at around 9pm [on Wednesday 19th December] the airfield was closed from 21:03 Wednesday 19th December to 03:01 Thursday 20th December,” the airport noted.
“Unfortunately a further sighting of drones in the vicinity of the airport has forced the runway to be closed again from 03:45 as we investigate the sighting alongside Sussex Police. We will update when we have suitable reassurance that it is appropriate to re-open the runway.”
Local law enforcement, Sussex Police, played down suggestions of terrorism.
“There are no indications to suggest this is terror-related,” said the force in a statement.
VIDEO – This BBC News report investigates how drones can affect airport operations.
As with other UK airports, Gatwick has been hit by protests against expansion, driven largely by local noise and ground congestion complaints and concerns about the impact of aviation on the wider ecology, including its contributions to climate change.
“This is a crime. This drone is being flown illegally. Earlier this year we changed the law to make it illegal to fly within a kilometre of an airport,” minister Sugg stated on UK television.
Gatwick, more than half the size of Heathrow in passenger number terms, saw chaos overnight Wednesday and through Thursday as passengers were urged not to travel to the airport. Flights from Europe and further afield were diverted across the continent, with scenes of passengers stuck far from their destinations and within Gatwick’s terminals a clear example of the dangers that even small UAVs can pose to commercial aviation.
The UK aviation regulator, the CAA, suggested that passengers affected by the situation should not expect the usual levels of disruption payments.
“Given the reasons for the current disruption at Gatwick Airport, the Civil Aviation Authority considers this event to be an extraordinary circumstance. In such circumstances airlines are not obliged to pay financial compensation to passengers affected by the disruption.”
However, said the CAA, “Under EU261 regulations, passengers that no longer wish to take their flight can contact their airline for a refund. For those passengers that do still wish to fly, we advise them to contact their airline to understand the options available.”
It’s unclear whether Gatwick and the airlines that operate to and from the airport would have the capacity, four days before Christmas, to reaccommodate a full day of disrupted passengers.
Traffic to/from @Gatwick_Airport at 15:30 UTC today vs. same time last week. Flights currently schedule into LGW will divert to alternate airports as the airfield remains closed due to persistent unauthorized drone activity.https://t.co/w4lyJUxn3b pic.twitter.com/7sUqO94qH3
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) December 20, 2018
Condemnation of the status quo was strong and immediate on Thursday, with stakeholders from across the aviation industry calling for stronger regulation of drones.
ERA, the European Regions Airline Association, many of whose members are heavy users of Gatwick, issued a strong statement in response to the situation.
“With a growth in both commercial and recreational markets, drone manufacturers and operators are seeking greater access to airspace, including that in which commercial aircraft are operating. Recent incidents in the surroundings of European airports, in particular today’s situation at London Gatwick Airport, are an illustration of the threats we are facing. The lack of regulation with regards to the ownership and use of drones has been of great concern to ERA for a long period of time and it is now time for tougher laws and enforcement to be put in place.”
Said Montserrat Barriga, ERA Director General: “The use of airport geo-fencing systems which track the trajectory of a drone will go some way to combating this menace, but it is now a priority to toughen laws and create larger no-fly zones around airports. Equally, considering more drones are likely to be given as gifts this Christmas, it is clear more education must also be given to ensure the public know how to fly in a safe and sensible manner. In the meantime, it is imperative that all governments take the necessary steps to expedite the regulation process of drone operations, both commercial and recreational.”
"Every time Gatwick tries to reopen the runway, the drones reappear" – Transport Secretary Chris Grayling describes the drones that have caused chaos at Gatwick Airport
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) December 20, 2018
Pilots union BALPA’s head of flight safety, Dr Hob Hunter, concurred. “These drone sightings at Gatwick are further evidence that tougher laws and enforcement are required to keep drones clear of manned flights. That’s why we need the registration and education process in force sooner rather than later, so people flouting the law can be caught and prosecuted.”
The UK law on drones was most recently updated on July 30 2018, making it illegal to operate a drone above 120m (400’), within 1km of an airport or airfield boundary, within 50m (150ft) of people or properties, or 150m (500ft) of crowds and built-up areas. The law also made endangering an aircraft with a drone a criminal offence subject to prosecution and a potential prison sentence of five years.