On December 19, Gatwick Airport was forced to shut down its runways for two days, following a ‘deliberate’ drone flight which invaded official airspace territory three days prior. Although authorities believe that the drone’s invasive flight was intentional, it has not been linked to terrorism. The possibility of drones flying through protected airspace immediately sparked fear of collision with incoming airlines, resulting in the Gatwick shut down just before the winter holidays. The result has delayed nearly 1,000 flights for an estimated 200,000 travellers at the UK’s second-busiest airport.
The drone sighting is believed to have been an intentional threat seeing that for an unmanned drone to have entered the protected airspace, the GPS settings must have been modified. At present, there is no available technology which could have prevented this accident, but the government is increasingly exploring options in anti-drone technology which could potentially amount to millions of pounds in development. Potential solutions include radio frequency-jammers, yet even these products might threaten incoming airline safety.
Traditionally, airlines are legally obligated to either reimburse those with cancelled flights or pay for hotels and a place on the next available flight. However, given the unexpected circumstances of the two-day partial shutdown of Gatwick, the UK Civil Aviation Authority decided that airlines were not bound to fulfil the financial requirement of funding lodging, which undoubtedly would have amounted to a large loss in costs.
Given the busy holiday season, “the next available flight” was fully booked for most airlines. Ryanair made the executive decision to temporarily relocate their flights from London Stansted Airport during the shutdown, about 113 kilometres (70 miles) away. As a result, several weary travellers were not only required to extend or delay their travel plans, but also wait anxiously on standby in case an available seat was made available. Although the drone threat did not induce any physical harm, it certainly managed to cause great disruption during Gatwick’s busiest travel period.
In an effort to track down further information about the drone’s owner, the police posted a £50,000 reward for helping find those responsible. As of yet, the perpetrator is still unknown and the police have no confirmed suspects in custody. However, about a week after the initial drone sighting, a West Sussex couple was arrested in connection with the investigation and held for 36 hours before being released without charge.
The police are continuing to investigate leads regarding the drone sighting with a primary focus on finding the re-programmed drone. In the aftermath of the shutdown, millions of pounds were lost in diverted flight plan disruptions. Additionally, anticipated future-funding for developing anti-drone is expected to be millions of pounds.