Britain’s Gatwick airport has reopened after a rogue drone saboteur wrought travel chaos for hundreds of thousands of Christmas travellers by playing cat-and-mouse with police snipers and the army.
After the biggest disruption at Gatwick, Britain’s second busiest, since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010, Gatwick said on riday its runway was open and that a limited number of aircraft were scheduled for departure and arrival.
“Gatwick’s runway is currently available and a limited number of aircraft are scheduled for departure and arrival,” the airport said.
“Gatwick continues to advise passengers to check the status of their flight with their airline before travelling to the airport as departures and arrivals will be subject to delays and cancellations.”
Britain called in the military and police snipers to hunt down the drone and its operator who flew what is thought to be an industrial style drone near the airport every time it tried to reopen.
Thousands of passengers remain stranded at the airport, south of the capital, London, as police continue to hunt for the operators of the large drones, which reappeared near the airfield on Wednesday and Thursday.
Police said there was no indication of a terrorism motive behind the devices, which first appeared on Wednesday night.
The armed forces were also deployed to help resolve the situation, with specialist equipment deployed by the Ministry of Defence to Gatwick airport to help Sussex Police.
“We are there to assist and do everything we can,” Defence Minister Gavin Williamson told reporters.
Police and airport authorities believe the drones, which were spotted near the airfield more than 50 times over a 24-hour period, were being flown in a deliberate act to disrupt the airport.
The spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the standoff as “irresponsible and completely unacceptable”.
Passenger Ani Kochiashvili had been bound for Georgia but spent six hours overnight sitting on a plane with her children.
“I’m very annoyed because I’m with two kids, a three-month-old and three-year-old,” she told Reuters news agency by phone among thousands camped in the terminal.
“They require a lot of space and food and changing and all that, and the airport is crazy busy so it’s challenging.”
Increase in near-collisions
With a surge in public enthusiasm for drones, there has been an increase in near-collisions by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets in recent years.
The number of near misses between private drones and aircraft in Britain more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year, according to the UK Airprox Board regulator.
Richard Parker, head of air traffic management technology firm Altitude Angel, said this was the first time a major airport had been hit by such a sustained and deliberate incursion into its airspace.
“It’s sophisticated, not from a technology side, but it’s organised. People have charged lots of batteries, and are deliberately trying to avoid being caught, probably by driving around to different locations,” he told Reuters.
“It really is unprecedented.”
Gatwick’s Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe described one of the drones as a heavy industrial model.
“The police advice is that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets,” he told BBC radio.
Drone expert Peter Lee of Portsmouth University said he and others had been anticipating disruption.
“One of my concerns about today is that it may well encourage copy-cat incidents because you can achieve a high amount of disruption for a very, very low cost,” he said.
It is illegal to fly drones within 1km of a British airport boundary, punishable by five years in prison.
Even with Gatwick re-opened, the backlog and disruption are expected to last for days.
Gatwick, which competes with Europe’s busiest airport, Heathrow, west of London, had previously said Sunday would be its busiest day of the festive period.
Passengers took to Twitter to share their stories.
One waiting at the airport said: “At Gatwick Airport, drone chaos, surprisingly good natured, but complete mayhem.”