London’s Heathrow Briefly Halts Flights After Drone Sighting

By Benjamin Katz and Irene García Pérez | January 8, 2019

The Heathrow airport was partially shut for more than an hour after drone sightings near runways raised safety concerns, the second time in a month a London airport had to suspend flights because of dangers from modern-day gadgets.

Departures were halted after the sightings in the vicinity of Europe’s busiest airport after 5 p.m. local time Tuesday, according to the Metropolitan Police. Services resumed following an evaluation of the threat to safety, while the government said it was looking at bringing in the military. The incident comes weeks after London’s Gatwick hub closed for the same reason.

The latest drone scares at the city’s two major airports have raised concerns about safety and the need for more aggressive steps to regulate these craft. While most nations prohibit drones from flying in pathways reserved for airliners, millions of small consumer devices that can’t be tracked on radar make it difficult for authorities to enforce the rules.

“It’s becoming quite a menace and a danger to everyone,” said Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation consulting firm Endau Analytics. “There is now an urgent need to enforce the rule more aggressively. When you have one of the world’s busiest airports being interrupted by drones, that’s unacceptable. ”

The Heathrow sighting spurred concern that the hub may have been targeted after the drone raids on Gatwick caused travel chaos for more than 150,000 people. That event, which grounded jets on the Wednesday before Christmas and led to days of disruption, raised questions about the preparedness of airports for encroachment by drones into commercial airspace.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said on Twitter during the Heathrow scare that he’d consulted with Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and that if necessary the military would deploy the same equipment that allowed the resumption of flights of Gatwick.

Heathrow may be better able to cope with drone disruption as it has two runways to Gatwick’s one. While two people were questioned by police about the earlier incident, no-one was charged and the investigations continue.

Grupo Aeromexico SAB in December was investigating whether a drone slammed into a Boeing Co. 737 jetliner as the aircraft approached its destination in Tijuana, Mexico, on the U.S. border. Images on local media showed considerable damage to the nose of the plane.

The latest drone reports come a day after the U.K. Department for Transport said it was moving ahead with plans to give police additional powers to tackle the misuse and abuse of the unmanned craft.

New steps could also include technology to detect and repel drones near airports and an extension to exclusion zones that bar them from flying above 400 feet and within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of an aviation hub.

Earlier Tuesday, Heathrow said it aims to boost capacity even before a new runway opens, employing measures including a rejigging of the way two existing landing strips are used to add 25,000 flights a year, or 5 percent more than a current cap. The project is part of a consultation on the 16 billion-pound ($20 billion) third runway.

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