London’s Gatwick airport has suspended all flights following reports of drones flying over the airfield, causing disruption to at least 10,000 pre-Christmas travellers.
Gatwick said that following reports of two drones flying over the airfield at 21:03 on Wednesday night, there had been “a further sighting of the unmanned devices that forced the runway to be closed from 03:45 as we investigate the sighting alongside Sussex Police”.
The airport’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroffe told the BBC’s Today programme that the drone sightings were continuing on Thursday morning, and that the airport had even considered shooting them down.
More than two dozen services were diverted on Wednesday night, according to Flightradar24, a service that tracks flight paths globally.
A spokesperson for Gatwick said passengers were “strongly advised not to travel to the airport without first checking the status of their flights”.
As of Wednesday evening “there were 6,000 people flying in from around the world to Gatwick who were diverted to alternative airports as we closed”, said Mr Woodroffe. Another 2,000 were unable to fly from their origin airport into Gatwick, while a further 2,000 could not fly out of Gatwick because of the closure.
Mr Woodroffe said that 20 police units were out hunting for the pilot or pilots of the drones. “We also have the helicopter up in their air but the police advise us that it would be dangerous to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets.”
Gatwick is expecting 49,472 passengers to arrive on Thursday, while departing passenger numbers are expected to be 65,592.
Surrey-based interior design worker Nicola Sheppard said her two adult sons were due to fly out of Gatwick to Barcelona with EasyJet at lunchtime. The budget airline cancelled the flight, having earlier said that passengers should head to the airport anyway.
EasyJet said: “Aircraft and crew remain out of position at airports away from London Gatwick, which has resulted in a number of cancellations this morning. Additionally, due to there being restrictions in place on the number of aircraft movements at Gatwick, there are further cancellations and delays today are expected to flights operating to and from London Gatwick.”
The airline has offered a transfer to an alternative flight to passengers whose flights were cancelled.
Norwegian said in a statement that customers on flights that have been cancelled could re-book free of charge or receive a full refund. Its flights have been diverted to multiple airports in the UK but not to Heathrow. One flight was diverted to Paris.
Virgin Atlantic has had to divert three incoming flights so far, two to Heathrow and one to Manchester. A spokeswoman for the airline said that one more flight was due to arrive this morning but it still had to determine when or if it would need to be diverted. Three flights are due to depart from Gatwick on Thursday.
The airline added that it was doing everything it could do minimise disruption to passengers’ travel plans.
Emirates said its flight EK11 was diverted to London Heathrow, while flight EK15 to Gatwick departed from Dubai with a delay of 1 hour 43 minutes.
Marketing consultant Carl Hendy, who was due to fly to Melbourne for a family Christmas celebration from Gatwick on Thursday afternoon, said he had been able to secure a different flight with his airline, Emirates.
“Fortunately I was up early this morning to get on to Emirates early before the rush started,” said Mr Hendy, who had first-class tickets. He will now fly from Heathrow on Thursday evening instead, which “puts us behind schedule but it’s OK”.
The incident comes after new legislation was introduced earlier this year banning all drones from being flown above 400 feet and within one kilometre of airport boundaries. Users who flout the rules face unlimited fines, five-year prison terms, or both.
The British Airline Pilots’ Association, a trade union, has complained the laws did not go far enough to address what it said has been a steep rise in dangerous near-misses for pilots skirting around drones in recent years.
According to Balpa, the 400ft height restriction for drones being operated near airports does not prevent damage to aircraft, as planes are flown below this height as they approach a runway.
Department for Transport research has also found that a 400g drone could smash a helicopter windscreen, while a 2kg device could critically damage an airliner’s windscreen. The small, mostly consumer devices, also cannot be tracked on radar.