Flights in and out of Britain’s Gatwick Airport are suspended, after drones were spotted flying over its airfield Wednesday night and Thursday morning. The cancellations, which now extend to at least 4 p.m. local time, triggered chaos for passengers as the effects rippled outward from the busy airport.
Two drones were seen flying over the airfield south of London around 9 p.m. local time Wednesday night, Gatwick said in a tweet. The airport was able to briefly open around 3 a.m., but more drone reports followed.
“I have a drone on my airfield,” Gatwick’s Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe told the BBC.
The drones ruined travel plans for 10,000 people Wednesday night, according to Woodroofe. Breaking down that number, he said 6,000 passengers were forced to divert to other airports, 2,000 were never able to take off for Gatwick and another 2,000 couldn’t fly out of the airport.
Because of the diversions, passengers who had been expecting to land near London were instead flown to a range of cities, from Liverpool and Manchester in Britain to Paris, Bordeaux, and Amsterdam in Europe, according to data from the air traffic tracking site Flightradar24.
Police are investigating the drone intrusion, which the airport says “appears to be a deliberate attempt to disrupt flights.”
“There are no indications to suggest this is terror related,” the Sussex Police Department said. Describing the type of device used, Sussex Police said via Twitter that the drones are believed to be “of an industrial specification.”
U.K. law bans drones from flying within 1 kilometer (.62 miles) of any airport. The British government says that if a drone operator is found to break the rules, it “could result in an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both.”
“The big fear, of course, has been that a drone hits an aircraft and brings it down,” said Alan McKenna, a professor at the University of Kent. In an interview with NPR’s Windsor Johnston, he added that the threat posed by the drones at Gatwick has already incurred a “very serious economic cost.”
The temporary closure has caused chaos at Gatwick, the second-largest airport in the U.K. Despite hosting some 46 million passengers a year, Gatwick uses only one runway.
Gatwick recently said that it expects 2.9 million passengers to travel through the airport during the upcoming holiday season. But images from the scene on Thursday showed an idled airport, with jetliners sitting on the tarmac beneath a clear, sunny sky.
With flights suspended just days before the holiday season kicks off, the airport is advising people who hold tickets for flights Thursday, “Please do not travel to Gatwick without checking the status of your flight with your airline, as there are significant cancellations and delays today.”
The police department has issued an appeal to the public asking for information about the drones’ operators. It’s also trying to track the small devices by helicopter.
Airlines are trying to help passengers find alternate ways to their destinations, or simply to find a hotel room in which to rest and wait for the suspension to lift. The local rail operator is offering to reroute or cancel tickets at no cost.
The airport apologized to air travelers who are affected by the sudden shutdown, but it adds, ” the safety of our passengers and all staff is our priority.”
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