London's second busiest airport finally reopened at 06:00 on Friday 21 December, having been closed for more than 36 hours to to rogue drones entering its airspace. Even though take offs and landings have resumed, almost 155 flights are likely to be cancelled today as airlines struggle to get aircraft and crews back into the right place. By close of business last night 120,000 passenger's travel plans had been disrupted, and more will be affected over the coming days.
The perpetrators that caused the disruption have not yet been caught by the police although the hunt continues. Gatwick Airport's Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe said that "additional mitigation measures" had been put into place to identify drones before they get to the airfield perimeter. "We have called in government agencies and the military to assist us in getting Gatwick open again to counteract this unprecedented event, this criminal act.” However, he added that he would have no hesitation in stopping operations again if the incursions resumed.
Theories as to who was responsible for launching the drones range from environmental activists, through disgruntled ex-airport employees, to anarchists or crazy gadget fans causing disruption for 'a bit of fun'. Hopefully someone saw something that will provide a clue - or maybe there's an electronic evidence trail that can be followed. But 24 hours on, unless those involved are brazen enough to try again, the trail must be starting to grow colder. Fortunately the the assistant chief constable of Sussex Police, Steve Barry, says they have leads and "persons of interest" are being investigated.
The airport and the government insist everything possible has been done to ensure that the airspace around Gatwick is safe, but the British Airline Pilots Association have sounded a more cautionary note. The union "remains extremely concerned at the risk of a drone collision. It is possible that the rogue drones may go undetected around the perimeter or could obstruct the flight paths outside the immediate detection zone."
Meanwhile, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC that "this kind of incident is unprecedented anywhere in the world, the disruption of an airport in this way.” He also pledged to get all UK airports involved with discussions and research aimed at addressed the problems posed by drones.
Gatwick's Woodroofe echoed yesterday's thoughts from The Avation Oracle when he added: "What the last 24 hours have shown is that a lot more work needs to be done at international airports to prepare and counteract such events. We need to do work with both technology providers and governments to address this risk.”
UPDATE: Shortly after 17:00 on Friday December 21 there was an report of yet another drone in the vicinity of Gatwick Airport. Flight operations were halted but resumed again at around 18:30.
Robust response required
Most people reading this column will love aviation, or will be extremely supportive of the industry. The Aviation Oracle felt sick yesterday while watching coverage of the events unfolding at Gatwick. Yet again - as with problems that gave rise to the liquids ban and then the laptops ban - the bad guys have found a way to disrupt air travel. No one has been hurt this time, but the economic damage inflicted on airlines and their customers has been tremendous. The last two days demonstrated that no matter what regulation is put into place, no matter how diligent staff and the security forces are, the fight has to continue because those intent on causing chaos keep trying to find another way though the net - and occasionally they succeed.
Signs are already appearing at UK airports.
There is a risk of the lunatic fringe launching copy cat operations - or worse - maybe elsewhere. An insider recently said that "drones are an airport security manager's unspoken nightmare." All parties acknowledge there are lessons to be learned, and it is vital that robust measures designed to prevent recurrence are implemented - not just at Gatwick but at airports and airfields across the world.
Text © The Aviation Oracle