London’s Gatwick Airport has been shut down after one or more drones were flown repeatedly over the runway in what airport officials say is a deliberate incursion.
Gatwick, which is the second busiest airport in the UK after London Heathrow, has been shut down to all incoming and outgoing flights since 9 p.m. GMT (5 p.m. EST) last night and remains closed at the time of writing, some 13 hours later.
According to the BBC, the closure has affected at least 100,000 passengers so far. It is one of the busiest times of the year for Gatwick with many people flying in and out at the start of their Christmas holidays.
Many passengers flying into Gatwick have been left stranded on the tarmac in planes around the world, while others have had flights canceled or redirected to other airports in the UK or even as far away as Amsterdam, Paris, and Bordeaux.
For those trying to fly out of Gatwick, the situation is chaotic. All flights are grounded and, with airport hotels full, many people have been forced to bed down on terminal floors.
One stranded passenger, Eddie Boyes, told the Daily Mail about the situation inside the airport last night.
“I and my family, along with many others, have been here for six hours. We were offered a hotel only for that to be rescinded shortly afterwards. People sleeping on floor in south terminal, utter shambles.”
Police are urgently investigating the incursion and scouring the five-mile exclusion zone around the airport for signs of the pilot. They have ruled out terrorism as a motive for the drone incursion, but have suggested that it could be the work of environmentalists seeking to disrupt air travel. They are considering using a sniper to try and shoot down the drone, but have said this action will only be taken as a last resort given the potential danger that stray bullets could pose.
Experts have said that the drone’s repeated incursions mean that it could only be a deliberate act. They have also said that the pilot must be an expert to have kept the drone consistently around the airport for such a long period of time.
As and when he is caught, the drone pilot can expect to face criminal charges and could face a sentence of up to five years in prison. The case has also seen calls for tighter regulation on the use of drones around airports and other sensitive sites in the UK as well as tougher penalties for those using them illegally.
The CEO of Gatwick Airport, Chris Woodroofe, told the UK’s Sky News channel that the drone had been around the airport throughout the night and was still circling this morning.
“Last night at 9’o’clock in the evening, a drone was spotted by two different members of my staff…”, he said. “At 3’o’clock we thought it had gone and then it came back again and so we closed the runway again. As I stand here now, there is a drone on my airfield, as we speak.”
“We will update when we have suitable reassurance that it is appropriate to reopen the runway,” the local police force added.