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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 January 2019

Gatwick drone saga carries into third day

Local police called in the army as over 100,000 people found their flights disrupted due to the drone sightings.

Police had still not found the drone operator on Friday morning. EPA
Police had still not found the drone operator on Friday morning. EPA

The British Army has been called into Gatwick to assist police in finding the culprits of drones flying illegally over the airport, as the airport declares flights grounded into Friday morning.

The airport’s only runway was closed on Wednesday evening after two drones were spotted nearby. It was briefly reopened in the early hours of Thursday morning, before another drone was seen around the airfield.

Multiple sightings have occurred since Thursday morning, the last being around 9.15pm local time.

Britain’s defence secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed the army had been brought in, but would not elaborate on their exact role.

"The Armed Forces have a range of unique capabilities and this isn't something we would usually deploy, but we are there to assist and do everything we can so that they are in a position to open the airport at the earliest possible opportunity,” he said.

Surrey Police Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley told reporters the force was considering shooting down the larger-than-average drone, saying there had been over 50 sightings so far.

“We have to work on the assumption that this is a professionally prepared drone with the intent of causing the disruption that it has," he said.

However, Gatwick Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe said the airport would remain closed on Thursday evening and a decision would be made overnight regarding Friday flights. He asked that those planning to fly on Friday to check with their airline before coming to the airport.

The airport’s CEO also issued a statement on the airport’s website telling passengers the company shared passengers’ “real anger and frustration” at the situation,

“This is a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas,” his statement read.

“We are working very closely with the police and the security services to try to resolve this for passengers.”

As the closure dragged on, Labour’s shadow aviation minister appeared on popular news programme Newsnight, blaming Conservative transport secretary Chris Grayling for the chaos.

"There should be wider exclusion zones around airports - I think the law says one kilometre at the moment, it should probably be five kilometres according to the experts," Karl Turner said.

"The Government should have brought this legislation forward, it's been an abject failure and I blame Chris Grayling.”

Current UK legislation orevents drones from flying within 1km of an airfield and flying above 120m. Those breaking the law and endangering the safety of an aircraft can serve up to five years in prison.

Woeful tales of delayed holidays, honeymoons and trips home for Christmas filled social media as the 710 flights due to land or take off from Britain’s second busiest airport on Thursday were cancelled or diverted.

Ani Kochiashvili shared pictures of her young children curled up on seats in the airport, asking her airline for updates.

Gisele Fenech, 43, who was travelling to Malta, was among those stranded at the airport.

"We're meeting family and it's my daughter's birthday today so it's gone all wrong. We've been looking forward to this for so long," she told AFP.

"Everyone's trying to get home for Christmas."

The issues also brought out the kindness in local people, who took to social media to offer places to stay for the night near the airport.

Other transport providers also joined the offers of help. London North Eastern Railway offered passengers flying to Edinburgh a free train journey with their flight ticket, but those hoping to fly further afield were left scrambling to book flights from other airports or wait at Gatwick for news.

There were 92 recorded incidents of near collisions between unmanned drones and commercial aircraft in Britain last year.

The rising number of near misses- a threefold increase since 2015- has fuelled safety concerns in the aviation industry.

Updated: December 21, 2018 05:29 AM

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