Invading drones cause Christmas travel chaos at Gatwick Airport

20 Dec 2018

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Thousands of Christmas travellers are facing serious delays after two drones got awfully close to a runway at Gatwick Airport.

If someone is guaranteed to find themselves on Santa’s naughty list this year, it will definitely be the pilot – or pilots – of two drones that got a little too close to Gatwick Airport, forcing authorities to cease all air traffic for a number of hours.

In a statement this morning (20 December), the airport said that two drones were spotted flying over the airfield at around 9pm last night, forcing it to close until 3am this morning. Then, less than 45 minutes later, a further sighting of drones in the area forced the airport to close the runway once again.

At the time of writing, flights are still suspended, with expectations that the runway will open again later this morning. With more than 100,000 people expected to be flying from the airport today – and 10,000 passengers affected by events last night – Gatwick has warned that serious delays are now expected for the next few days as it attempts to catch up on the affected flights.

Perpetrators facing prison time

Speaking with the BBC, Gatwick Airport’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe, said that the police refused to shoot down the drones, fearing a major risk posed by stray bullets. The drones have so far not been located.

Under UK law, it is illegal to fly a drone within 1km of an airport and other crucial transport infrastructure. The police said that these drones had flown over the perimeter fence and over the runway. If those behind the illegal drone use are caught, they could face a maximum prison sentence of five years.

Gatwick Airport had predicted that as many as 2.9m people would fly through it for Christmas, with this incident further compounded by the fact it is the busiest single-runway airport in the world.

As a result of the closure, the airport had to divert arriving aircraft to other airports in the UK such as Luton, Manchester and Cardiff, as well as ones as far away as Paris and Amsterdam.

This is not the first drone incident at a major international airport, as two years ago an Aer Lingus flight landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris had a near miss with one.

While in this instance Gatwick Airport had no technological response to the invading drones, measures have been developed over the past year, including handheld ‘microwave guns’ that can deactivate them from the ground. Other suggestions include geofencing, which disrupts a drone’s communications once it enters a particular area.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic