LONDON – London-Gatwick has been closed today after a drone was spotted within the airport’s proximity. The drone has been affecting arriving and departing aircraft all morning with many flights diverting to airports all over the UK.
Police are still searching for the drone’s pilot. Officials have noted in a statement that they do not believe this is a terrorist-related incident; however, they did say that they felt this was a “deliberate act” of disruption.
#GatwickDrones | We are carrying out a joint search w/ @Gatwick_Airport for the operators of #drones sighted at #Gatwick. Public safety is paramount and we will take all available actions to disrupt this deliberate act. There are no indications to suggest this is terror related. pic.twitter.com/J36d0Xzo2G
— Sussex Police (@sussex_police) December 20, 2018
Sussex county police stated that “Public safety is paramount,” and stressed that they are committed to finding the drone’s operator with over 20 units in the area searching.
The airport has constantly tweeted status reports, with the latest saying: “Thursday 11.45: All flights remain suspended from Gatwick today, due to ongoing drone activity around the airfield. There is significant disruption, as a result of what appears to be a deliberate attempt to disrupt flights.”
Police, Gatwick Airport Continue to look for drone pilot
“Gatwick Airport’s runway remains closed and all flights are currently suspended following reports of drones flying over Gatwick’s airfield last night and this morning,” published the airport via a statement.
“There is significant disruption at Gatwick today and we are prioritizing the welfare of those at the airport by deploying staff into our terminals to look after people as best we can.”
According to airport officials, management is “working hard with our airlines to get information to passengers but would advise anyone booked onto flights from Gatwick, or meeting arriving passengers, not to travel to the airport without checking the status of the flight with their airline.”
"I'm absolutely convinced it's a deliberate act to disrupt #Gatwick Airport" – Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw says more than 20 police units are searching for the drone operatorhttps://t.co/wDW0Rtnkq1 pic.twitter.com/Fh98WmaCjL
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) December 20, 2018
BALPA’s (British Airline Pilots Association), Head of Flight Safety, Dr. Rob Hunter, commented that “The public needs to understand that drones are not just toys and could have catastrophic consequences if they collide with an aircraft. We know a lot of drones will be under people’s Christmas trees and we implore them to ensure they’re aware of the rules and fly their drones in a safe and sensible manner.”
Just recently, an Aeromexico Boeing 737-800 collided with a drone as it was coming in to land at Tijuana International Airport. The drone caused severe damage to the aircraft’s nose and radome, thankfully not causing any injuries.
It is totally unacceptable to fly drones close to airports and anyone flouting the rules can face severe penalties including imprisonment.https://t.co/avAtyxPdQZ#Gatwick #Gatwick_Airport pic.twitter.com/XQqB4W9Kc0
— UK Civil Aviation Authority (@UK_CAA) December 20, 2018
“These drone sightings at Gatwick are further evidence that tougher laws and enforcement are required to keep drones clear of manned flights,” said Hunter. “That’s why we need the registration and education process in force sooner rather than later, so people flouting the law can be caught and prosecuted.”
Hunter noted that BALPA is calling for the British Government to consider toughening the law to create a larger no-fly zone around airports.
Sussex Police is also Tweeting repeatedly, “We are appealing for information to help us identify the operators of the
#Gatwick #drones. If you know who’s responsible or have any information please call 999 and quote ref 1350-19/12.”
What is the next move?
Hunter believes that strong action should be taken against infringing pilots. “We need to ensure people flying drones take responsibility for their actions and do so responsibly with the knowledge that if they endanger an aircraft they could face jail,” he said.
The UK’s Aviation Authority, the CAA, had launched a program in partnership with NATS (National Air Traffic Service), in an attempt to further educate drone pilots on the safe and correct use of these SUAS (Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems).
However, despite their efforts, the UK’s Airproximity board has said that there has been an increase in the number of air-to-air incidents involving drones, with only 113 reported cases of AIRPROXs from these flying devices in 2017, and as many as 120 reported in 2018.
image shows CAA guidance on drone operations in the UK.
Thousands stranded and further disruption to come
The Gatwick incident has been ongoing for over 10 hours, forcing hundreds of flights to be canceled or diverted. Thousands of travels are now stuck across the UK and Europe, as some planes have diverted to Amsterdam while many have chosen other London airports such as Stansted and Luton.
The whole incident has been made worse by the fact that most of Londons Airports are at maximum capacity, so they are unable to deal with the additional influx of flights and passengers while the issue develops.
Other UK airports have been welcoming diverting flights that were not allowed to land at Gatwick. Bournemouth Airport, located about 120 miles away from Gatwick, said that “Our airports are on standby to accommodate any diversionary flights from Gatwick, subject to operational requirement and capacity.”
“Safety is the key priority for all airports and we are watching developments closely. RCA will take its lead from industry regulators on how best to prevent illegal drone flying in prohibited airspace,” they added.
It remains unclear for how long the knock-on effect of this lengthy closure will last, but with the busy Christmas period ahead, it is clear that the damage done today will now take many days to correct.