Drones Shut Down Britain's Second-Biggest Airport During Peak Holiday Travel Season

Tens of thousands of passengers face disruption as police investigate.

London’s Gatwick Airport remains closed to flights after operations were suspended on Wednesday evening following reports of two drones flying over the airfield.

Flights in and out of the airport were suspended at about 9pm on Wednesday after two drones were sighted near the airfield, with hundreds of flights cancelled and tens of thousands of passengers affected.

Gatwick, which is used by more than 40 million passengers each year and is Britain’s second-biggest airport after Heathrow, briefly reopened at about 3am on Thursday – but shut once more just 45 minutes later.

A helicopter conducts searches above Gatwick's runway on Thursday morning.
A helicopter conducts searches above Gatwick's runway on Thursday morning.

In its latest statement, the airport said on Thursday: “All flights to and from Gatwick are suspended due to ongoing drone activity activity around the airport.

“Unfortunately, there are significant delays and cancellations to all flights today.”

Passengers are advised to check before they travel to the airport, amid chaotic scenes as thousands remain stranded in terminal buildings.

Last night, passengers due to take off reported planes being stuck on the airport’s apron for more than an hour.

Sussex Police confirmed officers continue to investigate, and ruled out any links to terror.

Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said: “We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport. However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror-related.”

Pictures from the scene on Thursday morning show the force’s helicopter flying near the runway.

Passengers vented their anger on social media as the situation developed overnight.

Twitter user Seun Olayanju posted: “@AerLingus currently stuck at Gatwick waiting for the heavily delayed E10249 to Dublin. Please can you confirm if the flight will run tonight?”

Honor Ireland wrote: “Landed at Stansted when we should be at @Gatwick_Airport due to a supposed drone sighting – car is at Gatwick, fantastic! #gatwickairport”

John Belo said: “Plane should have departed an hour ago from @Gatwick_Airport – captain confirmed there are reports of a drone in the area … still waiting.”

Lyndsey Clarke, from Southend on Sea, said she was stuck on a plane for more than four hours after it was re-routed to Stansted, another London-area airport.

The 27-year-old said passengers were then having to get taxis back to Gatwick after they were finally allowed off the aircraft.

Chaotic scenes at Gatwick were reported into Thursday.
Chaotic scenes at Gatwick were reported into Thursday.

Luke McComiskie’s plane ended up in Manchester, 233 miles away, and he described chaotic scenes as people tried to find their way home after more than three hours stuck onboard.

The 20-year-old from Aldershot told the Press Association news agency: “We got told there would be some arrangements with coaches for us when we get out the terminal... it was just chaos and they had only two coaches and taxis charging people £600 to get to Gatwick.”

Drones: An increasing threat to commercial jets

Powerful drones have become a popular gadget for millions.
Powerful drones have become a popular gadget for millions.

What is the law around flying drones?

Earlier this year, new laws came into force which ban all drones from flying above 400ft and within 1km (0.6 miles) of airport boundaries.

Drone users who flout the height and airport boundary restrictions could face an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both.

Research funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) found that a drone weighing 400g could smash a helicopter windscreen, and one weighing 2kg could critically damage an airliner’s windscreen.

Have there been any incidents at airports in the past?

According to the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), there were already 117 near misses between manned aircraft and drones up until November this year, compared to 93 for the whole of 2017.

This is not the first time an incident involving drones has been reported at London Gatwick.

In October, it was reported that a drone “put 130 lives at risk” after nearly hitting an aircraft approaching the airport over the summer.

According to the UK Airprox Board, the flying gadget passed directly over the right wing of the Airbus A319 as it was preparing to land at the West Sussex airport in July.

Also in October, a drone collided with a commercial aircraft as it was approaching to land in Canada.

There were six passengers and two crew on the aircraft and the drone connected with its wing, but fortunately it suffered only minor damage, allowing it to land safely at Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City.

UPDATE: This article has been fully updated throughout.