London’s Gatwick Airport reopened on Friday after a drone saboteur wrought travel chaos for hundreds of thousands of Christmas travelers by flying drones overhead, playing 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 its runway was open and that 700 planes were due to take
off on Friday, although there would still be delays and cancellations.
“Gatwick’s runway is currently available and a limited number of aircraft are scheduled for departure and arrival,” the airport said. 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.
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 for 36 hours was a terrorist attack.
Gatwick’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe said the perpetrator had not been found, but that additional security measures had given him the confidence to reopen the airport.
Flights were halted at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted near the airfield. The disruption affected 120,000 people. After a boom in drone sales, unmanned aerial vehicles have become a growing menace at airports across the world.
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 (0.6 mile) of a British airport boundary is punishable by five years in prison.
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. 2/2— Gatwick Airport LGW (@Gatwick_Airport) December 21, 2018
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.
Transport minister Chris Grayling lifted night-flying restrictions at other airports to ease congestion caused by diverted aircraft.
Police Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley said that “our assessment, based upon the information that we have available to us, is that this incident is not terrorism-related”.
Richard Parker, head of the 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 organized. 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.”