London’s Gatwick Airport reopened on Friday after a saboteur wrought 36 hours of travel chaos for over a hundred thousand Christmas travelers by using drones to play cat-and-mouse with police snipers and the army.
After the biggest disruption at Gatwick, Britain’s second busiest airport, since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010, Gatwick said around 700 planes were due to take off on Friday, although there would still be delays and cancellations.
Britain deployed unidentified military technology to guard the airport against what Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said were thought to be several drones.
“I think passengers are safe,” Grayling said. “This kind of incident is unprecedented anywhere in the world.”
The motivation of the drone operator, or operators, was unclear. Police said there was nothing to suggest the crippling of one of Europe’s busiest airports was a terrorist attack.
Gatwick’s drone nightmare is thought to be the most disruptive yet at a major airport and indicates a new vulnerability that will be scrutinized by security forces and airport operators across the world.
The army and police snipers were called in to hunt down the drones, thought to be industrial style craft, which flew near the airport every time it tried to reopen on Thursday.
The perpetrator has not yet been detained, police said, and no group has claimed responsibility. British officials will meet on Friday to discuss the situation. The defense ministry refused to comment on what technology was deployed.
Flights were halted at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted near the airfield. The disruption affected at least 120,000 people on Wednesday and Thursday, with thousands more to be disrupted on Friday.
After a boom in drone sales, unmanned aerial vehicles have become a growing menace at airports across the world.
In Britain, the number of near misses between private drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year.
Flying drones within 1 km (0.6 mile) of a British airport boundary is punishable by five years in prison.
The drone sightings caused misery for tens of thousands of travelers who were stranded at Gatwick, many sleeping on the floor as they searched for alternative routes to holidays and Christmas family gatherings.
“There’s no evidence that it is terror-related in the conventional sense,” Grayling said. “But it’s clearly a kind of disruptive activity that we’ve not seen before.”
He said it was uncertain how many drones were involved but it appeared to be more than one, and said military technology could help develop systems for commercial use at airports.
The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) said it understood “detection and tracking equipment” had been installed around Gatwick’s perimeter.
“The expectation is that, if and when the drones reappear, they will be detected and the airport will close again,” Brian Strutton, BALPA General Secretary, said.
“BALPA remains extremely concerned at the risk of a drone collision. It is possible that the rogue drones may go undetected around the perimeter or could obstruct the flight paths outside the immediate detection zone.”
It was not immediately clear what the financial impact would be on the main airlines operating from Gatwick including easyJet , British Airways and Norwegian.
“We are making every effort to get people to their destination at this important time of the year,” easyJet said.
“We are working to get our operations at Gatwick back to normal, but with runway movements restricted to a limited number per hour, we expect some disruption to continue.”
A Reuters witness at Gatwick’s South Terminal said the airport was busy, with many people waiting with luggage and queues for service desks, but not unusually so for a day so close to Christmas.
Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” meaning airlines are not obliged to pay compensation to affected passengers.
Airlines will have to refund customers who no longer wish to travel however and try to reschedule flights to get passengers to their destinations.
Some, like Sarah Garghan-Watson, chose to stick it out at the airport overnight, having arrived at 8am on Thursday.
“It’s now 2 o’clock in the morning at Gatwick, and it’s very bright and very noisy. It’s now also very cold,” she said in a video shown on Sky.
“All I can see tonight… is a sign that says ‘no more sleeps until the beach’. And here we are, sleeping, in the stairs at Gatwick, because there’s no flights.”
(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout and Kate Holton; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Janet Lawrence)
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