Gatwick travel misery: runway reopens, suspects still at large
Gatwick Airport has reopened its runway on the morning of December 21, 2018, and is allowing a limited amount of flights to take off and land. The incident comes on the heels of what the airport expects to be the busiest day of travel. The suspect or suspects of the “deliberate” act are still at large, despite a full-blown police investigation, involving government and military assistance.
Gatwick Airport (LGW) reopened its runway at 6:00 am on December 21. Gatwick Airport’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe, told the BBC that the "mitigating measures" received from the government and the military had given him "confidence to reopen".
Regularly updating its media statements, the airport announced on December 21, at 9:30 (GMT) through 12:00 (GMT): “Gatwick’s runway is now available and aircraft are arriving and departing. We are, however, expecting knock-on delays and cancellations to flights.”
Flights and travel plans of thousands of passengers and holiday makers were brought to a standstill for an entire day after drones were spotted over the airfield on the eve of December 19 and morning of December 20.
Outbound flights were grounded and inbound flights were being redirected all day yesterday, affecting over 120,000 passengers since the previous evening. Some passengers, however, were still turning up at the airport late on December 20, to try their luck for a departing fight.
Gatwick Airport CEO, Stewart Wingate, took upon himself to apologize all affected passengers for the disruptions.
Officials said around 700 aircraft were due to take off this Friday, December 21, according to Reuters. However, cancellations and delays are expected to continue well into the day, which is why Gatwick is advising passengers to check the flight status with their airlines before even going to the airport.
To soak up the overspill, flights and hotels have been overbooked. Night flying restrictions were also lifted to ease the strain on air traffic control systems and soften the knock-on effect across UK and Europe, as a significant number of flights were being diverted to other airports.
Meanwhile, efforts of the airport’s officials and local police were focused on finding the drones and its operator: the airport could not operate while the drones were in flight for safety reasons.
But the drones kept appearing near Gatwick every time it tried to reopen on December 20.
According to BBC News, late on December 20, around 20 police teams, including armed patrol on the ground, were working in and around the airport, which covers a 10-mile (15 km) perimeter.
Having requested military assistance, the army deployed “specialist equipment” to Gatwick to find the drones.
Sussex Police Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry said the measures included “technical, sophisticated options to detect and mitigate drone incursions,” as well as “less sophisticated options - even shotguns would be available to officers should the opportunity present itself,” he was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
Early on December 21, there were suggestions the police would shoot the drone down. It is not clear, whether these intentions have been carried out.
Raising the alarm and the stakes
Experts point out that airports have detection systems in place to stop unmanned from flying vehicles from flying into the airfield, or even from taking-off near it. Gatwick either did not have that safety system installed, or it was overridden.
British authorities still do not know if the incident was carried out by one or more persons. The event raises an alarm in terms of airport and flight safety (and even in terms of counter-terrorism, although this event has not been described as “terrorism-related”).
That is because the incident could potentially be the first time multiple drones were used in coordination for a major civil disruption, which has certainly reverberated through the British economy.
The aspect of coordination (by possibly two or more separate drone operators) is particularly alarming. Authorities suspect environmental protesters were behind the act.
Back in October 2018, Gatwick officially revealed plans to open its second runway by putting the existing standby runway into routine use. Environment protection organizations have been critical of those intentions.
As for drone restrictions in the UK, new regulations introduced by the UK Department for Transport in July 2018, now prohibit all drones from flying above 400 feet (around 120 meters) as well as within one kilometer (around 0.621 miles) of airport or airfield boundaries.
Further regulations, which are set to come into effect in November 2019 will also require operators of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and take online safety tests.