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London's Gatwick Airport Reopens After Drone Sightings Derail Holiday Travel

Passengers wait Thursday after Gatwick Airport was forced to shut down operations because of drones flown illegally over its airfield.
Peter Nicholls
Passengers wait Thursday after Gatwick Airport was forced to shut down operations because of drones flown illegally over its airfield.

Updated at 9:36 a.m. ET Friday

Roughly a day and a half after drone sightings forced Gatwick Airport to suspend flights, shuttering the U.K.'s second-busiest hub at the height of the holiday travel season, officials have announced that the airport is once more back in business. However, authorities say whoever was controlling the drones is still at large.

"Gatwick's runway is now available and aircraft are arriving and departing," the airport declared on its Twitter account Friday morning, warning travelers that they still may face some "knock-on delays and cancellations to flights."

Still, the news is some welcome holiday relief for the more than 100,000 people who had their travel plans disrupted.

"On behalf of everyone at Gatwick I would like to repeat how sorry we are for the inconvenience this criminal behaviour has caused passengers and we share their real anger and frustration that it has happened," Gatwick CEO Stewart Wingate said in a statement released Thursday. "This is a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas."

He explained that the decision to suspend activity at Gatwick was prompted initially Wednesday night by "reports of two drones flying in and around the airfield." Soon, Sussex Police, which oversees the area, was bombarded with calls about drone sightings in the vicinity.

"Military assistance was requested for specialist equipment to secure the airfield," Sussex Police controller Mark Laurent told NPR. He added that it is a criminal offense to fly the drones where they were seen — though there was "no reason to suspect" it was a terrorist act.

U.K. law bans drones from flying within 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) of any airport. The British government says that if a drone operator is found to break the rules, it "could result in an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both."

"The big fear, of course, has been that a drone hits an aircraft and brings it down," said Alan McKenna, a professor at the University of Kent. In an interview with NPR's Windsor Johnston, he added that the threat posed by the drones at Gatwick has already incurred a "very serious economic cost."

Gatwick was able to open briefly around 3 a.m. Thursday, but more reported sightings followed.

Transport Minister Chris Grayling said this was "not the classic, plastic garden drone," but "a commercial-sized drone that is clearly being operated deliberately in a way that every time Gatwick tries to reopen the runway, the drones reappear."

Sussex Police said on Twitter that the drones were believed to be "of an industrial specification."

They ruined travel plans for some 10,000 people Wednesday night alone, according to Gatwick's chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe. Speaking with the BBC, he said 6,000 of those passengers were forced to divert to other airports, 2,000 were never able to take off for Gatwick and another 2,000 couldn't fly out of the airport.

Gatwick serves some 46 million passengers a year. The airport recently said it expects 2.9 million passengers during the upcoming holiday season. But images Thursday showed an idled airport, with jetliners sitting on the tarmac beneath a clear, sunny sky.

Because of the diversions, passengers who had been expecting to land near London were instead flown to a range of cities, from Liverpool and Manchester in Britain to Paris, Bordeaux and Amsterdam in Europe, according to data from the air traffic tracking site Flightradar24.

With flights suspended just days before the holiday season kicks off, the airport advised people with tickets for flights Thursday, "Please do not travel to Gatwick without checking the status of your flight with your airline."

"I cannot guarantee that another drone isn't going to pop up and disrupt the airport," Steve Barry, the assistant chief constable of the Sussex Police, said in a statement Friday. "The situation is being kept under review but we are in a much more positive situation than yesterday. The runway is open and we hope to keep it that way."

Meanwhile, his department has issued an appeal to the public, asking for information about the drones' operators. It was also trying to track the small devices by helicopter.

"We are now actively carrying out a criminal investigation and have a number of lines of enquiry," he added. "This has been a deliberate act to endanger the airfield and aircraft, a really serious offence that carries significant sentences, and we are doing all we can to find those responsible."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.
Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.