A Monarch Airlines Ltd. Airbus SAS A320 passenger aircraft taxis on the tarmac at London Gatwick airport in Crawley, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

London Gatwick Turns to Army as Drones Ruin Holiday Getaway

(Bloomberg) -- London’s Gatwick airport turned to the military after police were unable to stop incursions by illegal drones that have closed the hub for approaching 24 hours, disrupting journeys for more than 100,000 people on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Thousands of passengers hunkered down on departure-hall floors Thursday in anticipation of flights resuming, but sporadic sightings of the mystery craft led the airport to extend the shutdown throughout the day.

Gatwick Chief Executive Officer Stewart Wingate said the criminal intrusions involving two drones were “highly targeted” and designed to close the airport with maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas. Police said the actions were clearly deliberate, though most likely not terror related.

With night falling and authorities apparently no closer to finding the perpetrators, U.K. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that military assistance would be provided to help end the disruption, the worst at a London airport since blizzards closed the city’s main Heathrow hub in 2013. The Ministry of Defense said that forces would deploy specialist equipment.

“Obviously once it gets dark you cannot physically see a drone, which will make it more difficult, but the police are out in force trying to spot it,” Gatwick spokeswoman Mandy Armstrong said by phone.

The Department for Transport said that a ban on night operations at other U.K. airports would be temporarily lifted to help ease the backlog of flights.

Reports of two objects above Gatwick caused services to be halted at about 9 p.m. on Wednesday, with more than 50 incoming planes diverted to other hubs across Britain and some in mainland Europe. The airport reopened after six hours, only to shut again 45 minutes later amid further sightings.

London Gatwick Turns to Army as Drones Ruin Holiday Getaway
London Gatwick Turns to Army as Drones Ruin Holiday Getaway

Services remained grounded through the peak morning departure period and into the afternoon and evening, with a daylight search aided by helicopters failing to locate the devices or their operators. Gatwick is the world’s busiest single-runway hub, the biggest base for discount carrier EasyJet Plc and the focus for long-haul leisure flights at British Airways.

Ryanair Holdings Plc will shift its Friday flights at Gatwick to London’s Stansted Airport, according to a statement by the airline.

“We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport,” Gatwick police commander Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said in a statement. “However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror related.”

Gatwick said customers should check with their airline before heading to the airport. “We’re sorry for the inconvenience today, but the safety of our passengers and staff is our no. 1 priority,” it added.

London Gatwick Turns to Army as Drones Ruin Holiday Getaway

Diverted or canceled arrivals Wednesday night affected about 6,000 people at carriers including Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, while 2,000 more were unable to depart on 18 scrapped services. The extended closing means hundreds of daytime operations may be lost in what would be one of the worst-ever disruptions to schedules by illegal drone incursions.

Even when the airport reopens, further upheaval is likely, with EasyJet saying in a statement that the overnight shutdown has left aircraft and crew rostered to fly from Gatwick stranded at other locations.

London is served by about half a dozen airports, and some passengers at Gatwick said they were seeking to book flights from Heathrow, about 30 miles away, in order to complete their journeys.

One couple who had been planning to spend Christmas in the Caribbean said they’d traveled for two hours from the English Midlands to catch a flight to Barbados, but like thousands of other found that it was unable to operate.

Others tweeted their frustrations while generally supporting the airport’s decision to close. “Right call Gatwick,” one person said, though another suggested that police should seek to shoot down any trespassing craft, and a third argued that with day dawning “either you can see a drone or you can’t.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles and laser pointers are becoming an increasing threat for aircraft, prompting regulators to come up with new rules against operating the devices near airfields.

Dubai International Airport shut down temporarily in 2016 after suspected drone activity, while airspace around Wellington, New Zealand, was closed for 30 minutes this year when a craft was spotted flying close to the runway. And Grupo Aeromexico SAB last week said was investigating whether a drone collided with a Boeing Co. 737 aircraft as the plane approached Tijuana, Mexico. The jet sustained damage to its nose but landed safely.

Different Birds

“In the past, trying to skirt around birds was hard enough and now you’ve got a different kind of bird made out of metal or plastic,” said Mohshin Aziz, an aviation analyst at Maybank Investment Bank Bhd. in Kuala Lumpur. “A drone strike is far, far more damaging than a bird strike.”

While governments bar drones from paths reserved for airliners, with Britain outlawing flights above 400 feet or within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of an airport boundary, the millions of small consumer devices that have been purchased around the world can’t be tracked on radar.

London Gatwick Turns to Army as Drones Ruin Holiday Getaway

That makes it difficult to enforce the rules. In addition, many users don’t know the restrictions -- or don’t follow them.

U.K. Aviation Minister Liz Sugg said the government was in close contact with the airport as it worked with police to “safely resolve the situation as quickly as possible.”

Prime Minister Theresa May said that the disruption was “particularly difficult for people” to bear in the run up to Christmas and the New Year, and that the drone operators face as many as five years in jail if caught.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.