Europe

London's Gatwick airport reopens after drone chaos, snipers on standby

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Britain's second busiest says 765 flights are scheduled for departure and arrival.

36 hours of travel chaos for over a hundred thousand Christmas travelers by using a drone to play cat-and-mouse with police snipers and the army.

After the biggest disruption at Gatwick, Britain’s second busiest airport, since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010, Gatwick said 700 planes were due to take off on Friday, although there would still be delays and cancellations.

Passengers sleeping at Gatwick airport.
Passengers sleeping at Gatwick airport.
AAP

Britain deployed unidentified military technology to guard the airport against what Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said were thought to be several drones.

“What’s happening on the ground is a mix of measures taken to give confidence that aircraft can be safe... Some of those are military capabilities,” Grayling told BBC television.

Grayling said there was not yet “a straightforward commercial, off-the-shelf solution that automatically solves all problems.”

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Drone sightings ground planes in London
Drone sightings ground planes in London

Snipers called in

There was mystery over the motivation of the drone operator, or operators, and police said there was nothing to suggest the crippling of one of Europe’s busiest airports was a terrorist attack.

Gatwick’s drone nightmare is thought to be the most disruptive yet at a major airport and indicates a new vulnerability that will be scrutinized by security forces and airport operators across the world.

The army and police snipers were called in to hunt down the drones, thought to be industrial style craft, which flew near the airport every time it tried to reopen on Thursday.

Chaos

Gatwick’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe said the perpetrator had not yet been found.

Flights were halted at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted near the airfield. The disruption affected at least 120,000 people.

After a boom in drone sales, unmanned aerial vehicles have become a growing menace at airports across the world.

The Arrivals Board at Gatwick airport .
The Arrivals Board at Gatwick airport .
AAP

In Britain, the number of near misses between private drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year.

Flying drones within 1 km of a British airport boundary is punishable by five years in prison.

The drone sightings caused misery for tens of thousands of travelers who were stranded at Gatwick, many sleeping on the floor as they searched for alternative routes to holidays and Christmas family gatherings.

'Not terror-related'

“There’s no evidence that it is terror-related in the conventional sense,” Grayling said. “But it’s clearly a kind of disruptive activity that we’ve not seen before. This kind of incident is unprecedented anywhere in the world.”

He said it was uncertain how many drones were involved but it appeared to be more than one.

“It’s thought to be a small number of drones in the plural,” Grayling said. “It certainly wasn’t a lot, it was the same small number of drones seen many times.”

It was not immediately clear what the financial impact would be on the main airlines operating from Gatwick including easyJet, British Airways and Norwegian.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” meaning airlines are not obliged to pay compensation to affected passengers.

Airlines will have to refund customers who no longer wish to travel however and try to reschedule flights to get passengers to their destinations.

Drone operators face five-year jail term

Under a new British law, drones cannot be flown near aircraft or within a kilometre of an airport, or at an altitude of over 400 feet (122 metres). 

British Prime Minister Theresa May warned the perpetrators they could face up to five years in prison for endangering an aircraft under recently passed legislation.

"We're consulting on further aspects of this including further police powers," she added.

Gatwick serves more than 228 destinations in 74 countries for 45 million passengers a year.

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