London, UK : Rogue drones circulating above one of Europe’s busiest airports have grounded flights and left thousands of Christmas travellers stranded.
London’s Gatwick airport cancelled all 760 flight departures and landings since Thursday (Australian time), as the British army worked with local police to tackle the presence of drones being “deliberately” flown above the runway.
A total of about 110,000 passengers were affected as the airport’s runway was forced to close for more than 17 hours, cancelling flights until further notice.
Police have ruled out terrorism as the motive, as authorities continue the search for two suspects responsible for triggering the biggest disruption at Gatwick since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010.
Authorities resisted shooting the drones out of the air for fear of stray bullets, Gatwick chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe said.
Georgia-bound passenger Ani Kochiashvili spent six hours overnight sitting on a plane with her children.
“I’m very annoyed because I’m with two kids, a three-month-old and three-year-old,” she told Reuters by phone, among thousands camped in the terminal.
“They require a lot of space and food and changing and all that, and the airport is crazy busy so it’s challenging.”
Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the drone flights as “irresponsible and completely unacceptable”, adding that police may be given greater powers against drones in the future.
The airport and its biggest airline, easyJet told, passengers to check before heading to the terminal, where people sat waiting on stairs and floors.
Mr Woodroofe described one of the drones as a heavy industrial model.
“The police advice is that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets,” he told BBC radio.
Drone expert Peter Lee, of Portsmouth University, said he and others had been anticipating disruption.
“An airport would be a preferred or obvious target for somebody who wants to either just create mischief or criminal damage,” he said.
“One of my concerns about today is that it may well encourage copy-cat incidents because you can achieve a high amount of disruption for a very, very low cost.”
Even after Gatwick re-opens, the backlog and disruption are expected to last for days.
Gatwick said that it was working with its airlines, the biggest of which also include British Airways and Norwegian, on recovery plans once the runway re-opens.
It apologised on Twitter to passengers, adding that safety was its “foremost priority”.
Gatwick, which competes with Europe’s busiest airport Heathrow, west of London, had previously said that Sunday would be its busiest day of the festive period.