London’s Gatwick airport is closed to aircraft following multiple sightings of illegal drones, disrupting flights for as many as 115,000 people on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
Lines of passengers circled Gatwick’s two terminals Thursday and hundreds hunkered down on departure-hall floors, with the airport saying at 11:30 a.m. that it could give no indication of when it might reopen. Police said the incursions were clearly deliberate though most likely not terror related.
Reports of two objects above the airfield prompted authorities to halt flights late 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.
Operations remained grounded into the peak morning departure period, with no time set for their resumption, though a spokeswoman said daylight should help staff determine whether there is still a risk. 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.
Police and airport-security teams were continuing to scour the area after the last sighting of a drone at 8:45 a.m., with a helicopter deployed to aid in the search for the perpetrators.
“We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport,” Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw, the police commander for Gatwick, said in a statement. “However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror related.”
Gatwick said on its Twitter feed that services had been idled due to “drone activity” and that 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.
Diverted or canceled flights overnight 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 closure 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 and then found their flight to Barbados delayed for at least five hours.
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.
“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.
That makes it difficult to enforce the rules. In addition, many users don’t know the restrictions -- or don’t follow them.
Sussex police said early Thursday there was no evidence to suggest that the Gatwick incident was terror-related and that they’d take all available actions to disrupt the incursion.
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.” The drone operators could face five years in jail, she added.