London’s Gatwick Airport yesterday reopened for flights while cautioning that it was still on the hunt for illegal drones that buzzed the hub for almost 24 hours, disrupting travel for 120,000 people.
With many airplanes and staff still out of position, Gatwick said that it would struggle to operate a normal timetable, let alone clear a backlog of passengers who found themselves grounded by the mystery incursions.
There was no guarantee that the devices were gone, it added.
“Obviously there is a possibility that the drones could return,” a Gatwick spokeswoman said by telephone, adding that management was “suitably content in working with the police and other experts to reopen.”
Customers should check with their airline before traveling to their terminal, the airport said.
Sussex Police, which has been dealing with the incident along with specialists from Britain’s armed forces, said that there were almost 50 drone sightings at the airport between 9:07pm on Wednesday and 4:25pm on Thursday, although some might have been duplicates.
A statement on the force’s Web site said that “as yet, the drone has not been identified.”
It was not clear how long it would take to restore order at Gatwick after the worst disruption at a London airport since blizzards closed Heathrow Airport in 2013. The hub has only one runway, which is already the world’s busiest, giving it little scope to cram in more flights even if the drones stay away.
EasyJet, the airport’s biggest carrier, was among those to caution that it expected further disruption.
British authorities portrayed the intrusion as a deliberate invasion of Gatwick’s airspace at one of the busiest travel periods of the year. A single pair of drones got the better of a multifront operation supported by the military for the best part of two days.
A daylight search backed by helicopters failed to locate the devices or their operator.
British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson sent in the military and the British Ministry of Defence said that specialist equipment would be deployed.
To ease the backlog of flights, the British Department for Transport temporarily lifted a ban on night operations at other UK airports.
The criminal intrusions involving two drones were “highly targeted” and designed to deliver maximum disruption in the days before Christmas, Gatwick Airport CEO Stewart Wingate said.
The actions were clearly intentional, although most likely not terror related, police said.
More than 50 incoming airplanes were diverted to other hubs in Britain and mainland Europe on Wednesday night, with Gatwick reopened after six hours, only to shut again 45 minutes later amid further sightings.
As well as the biggest base for EasyJet, Gatwick is also a focus for long-haul leisure flights at British Airways. Hundreds of operations have been disrupted because of the closure.
Ryanair said that it would shift yesterday’s flights at Gatwick to London Stansted Airport.
Airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Norwegian Air Shuttle have diverted to other airfields.
Uncrewed aerial vehicles and laser pointers have become an increasing threat for aircraft, prompting regulators to come up with new rules against operating the devices near airfields.
Dubai International Airport in 2016 shut down temporarily after suspected drone activity, while airspace around Wellington was closed for 30 minutes this year when a craft was spotted flying close to the runway.
Grupo Aeromexico last week said that it was investigating whether a drone collided with a Boeing 737 as the airplane approached Tijuana, Mexico. The jet sustained damage to its nose, but landed safely.
While governments bar drones from paths reserved for airliners, with Britain outlawing flights above 120m or within 1km of an airport boundary, the millions of small consumer devices that have been purchased around the world cannot be tracked on radar, making it difficult to enforce the rules.
In addition, many users do not know the restrictions — or do not follow them.
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