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Gatwick Airport finally open again after two days of drone activity suspended flights of 120,000 passengers

A plane comes in to land at Gatwick Airport. Picture by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Sam Blewett, Neil Lancefield, Henry Vaughan, Flora Thompson

GATWICK Airport in London has finally opened again after two days of drone activity forced the suspension of flights affecting over 120,000 passengers.

In a statement last night, Gatwick Airport said: "Flights have now resumed at Gatwick following a reported drone in the area.

"While we investigated, airfield movements were suspended. This was a precautionary measure as safety remains our main priority.

"The military measures we have in place at the airport have provided us with the reassurance necessary that it is safe to reopen our airfield."

The announcement was made a short time after flights had again been suspended because of a suspected drone sighting yesterday evening around 5.10pm.

The runway had been reopened in the morning after planes were stopped from flying in and out of the airport from 9pm on Wednesday.

Police believe more than one unmanned aircraft are responsible and are investigating the possibility of multiple culprits.

A Sussex Police spokesman said flights were being grounded after "unconfirmed reports" of a fresh sighting.

Police prepared to blast the drones out of the sky with a shotgun or jam them with a hi-tech radar system as they continued their hunt for the aircraft and their operators.

In an update on its website, easyJet said: "Gatwick airport have confirmed that the runway is now open. We do expect that the number of departures and landings will be restricted to begin with, which means that we are likely to experience more disruption to the flying programme.

"We would like to request our passengers to continue to check the status of their flight on the easyJet Flight Tracker."

In response to a customer on Twitter, British Airways said: "We've received confirmation approx 30 minutes ago from London Gatwick, advising the airport is back open and the majority of flights operating as scheduled".

According to Flightradar24, a plane from East Midlands Airport landed at Gatwick at 5.58am yesterday.

A spokesman from Gatwick Airport said: "Gatwick's runway is currently available and a limited number of aircraft are scheduled for departure and arrival.

"Gatwick continues to advise passengers to check the status of their flight with their airline before travelling to the airport as departures and arrivals will be subject to delays and cancellations."

Gatwick chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe said the airport has scheduled almost 700 departures for today.

Mr Woodroofe, speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, said: "Our advice to our passengers is to check with their airline on each of those flights that they're intending to get, to establish whether it's one of the flights that's being operated or one of the flights that's being cancelled, before they come to the airport.

"I'd just like to apologise to all of those affected over the last 36 hours – 120,000 passengers who were due to fly to their destinations or arrive into Gatwick who have not travelled."

Mr Woodroofe was pressed on why the airport had decided to reschedule flights while the drone had not been found, he said: "We have been working overnight with the police, with a number Government agencies and with the military to put in place additional mitigating measures which have enabled me to reopen our airport."

Asked if the "mitigating measures" meant the drone would be shot down, he said: "You'll appreciate that there are certain things I can't talk about in detail."

The number of drone sightings at Gatwick Airport since Wednesday has been "unprecedented" but police now have "a number of options" around its perimeter to help prevent further disruption, Sussex Police assistant chief constable Steve Barry said.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: "This kind of incident is unprecedented anywhere in the world, the disruption of an airport in this way."

He told BBC Breakfast: "We're going to have to learn very quickly from what's happened.

"I plan to convene discussion with other airports around the UK very quickly indeed so that they know what's happened, they understand what lessons need to be learned, and we've put in place every measure we possibly can to ensure this can't happen again."

Mr Grayling said there had been around 40 sightings of what were thought to be a "small number of drones" while the airport was closed.

"It certainly wasn't a lot, it was the same small number of drones seen many times," he said

Asked if it was terror-related, he said: "It's a different kind of disruption. Certainly there's no evidence it's terror-related in the conventional sense, not linked – as far as we're aware – to an international terrorist group.

"But it's clearly a kind of disruptive activity that we've not seen before."

Mr Grayling would not give details of what measures had been put in place, but said some of them were "military capabilities", adding: "There are a range of measures which are there today which should give passengers confidence that they are safe to fly."

The technology to stop drones "was only just emerging", he added.

"A small number of airports around the world have started to bring in systems which could help, might not solve a problem like this, but could help, so it's not a question of waiting to introduce technology. The technology is literally only just appearing.

"There certainly isn't a straightforward commercial off-the-shelf solution that automatically solves all problems."

Mr Grayling said measures would need to be taken to "make it impossible for a drone use of the kind we've seen to disrupt an airport in the way that's happened".

Asked if he could make it impossible, he said: "We're going to have to. The technology's moving on fast in this area, there are systems emerging now that can help, clearly there are military systems that can help, but we're going to have to work together with all the airports to make sure that we've got systems that give them comfort that planes can fly."

Mr Grayling added: "I think passengers are safe. A lot of detailed work has been done. The decisions taken by the airport are that they are confident that passengers are now safe. They would not have taken that decision if they were not confident."

Sussex Police assistant chief constable Steve Barry said the last confirmed sighting of a drone was at 10pm on Thursday night.

"The key is we've now got some options around the airport from a police perspective and that puts us in a much better position to respond to drone sightings," he told BBC Breakfast.

"There are a range of options, some of them very sophisticated and some of them less sophisticated, but it has as I say put us in a much better position to respond to any of those drone sightings."

He went on: "The last few days has been unprecedented nationally I would say, I mean we have had minor incursions previously at Gatwick and we have responded to those really effectively.

"But like I say, this scenario that we're dealing with has been unprecedented so in terms of getting the level of options available to respond to it, to mitigate it, to detect it and respond to it, that has taken us some time, but I'm really confident now that we've got everything we possibly could have here at Gatwick."

Asked if the disruption was part of an environmental protest, he said: "Well it's certainly something that we would consider. Yes, I would agree that's a possibility.

"At this stage we're certainly not linking it to terrorism, but obviously we keep an open mind and I can understand the perception.

"It is, as I say, an unprecedented level of disruption to national infrastructure to the passengers themselves. It's really really significant. But in terms of the motivation as I say you know we're exploring lines of enquiry around that but at this stage we're not saying that it is terrorist related."

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has said "military capability" has been employed to combat a drone at Gatwick Airport.

Pressed on whether that meant "lasers, drone catching nets or radio wave fences", he said: "There are new technologies that are now available, some purely in the military arena, some beginning to appear on the commercial market that are able to take action against drones.

"There isn't a single off the shelf commercial solution that does the job and so what's happened is a variety of things have been done to create a sense, create that degree of confidence that Gatwick is now safe to fly in and out of."

Mr Grayling, speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, said this was an "unprecedented" situation as he rejected the idea that police could simply "shoot down" the drone.

He said: "There is a experience recently elsewhere in the world of literally thousands of machine gun bullets being used to try and bring down the drone, failing to do so and of course you can't just fire weapons haphazardly in what is a built up area around the airport."

Mr Grayling speculated the drone could be part of "an environmental protest".

He said: "This isn't clear yet, we have not yet completed enquiries, police are following a number of leads there have been a number of pieces of speculation, it could be an environmental protest but we genuinely don't know."

The Cabinet minister told the BBC that whoever the perpetrator or perpetrators were, they needed to "go to jail for a long time".

Asked if it was possible the drone was being operated by an agent of a foreign government, Mr Grayling said: "I don't want to speculate on that, we genuinely don't know who it is or what the motivation was."

"I think it's unlikely to be, but at the moment I'm not ruling out anything", he added.

Mr Grayling revealed patrols were taking place around other airports in the UK "to watch for any other incidents".

He added: "We're going to be talking very quickly indeed to other airports about other measures they can also take and we should be looking to take to make sure this can't happen elsewhere."

On the issue of compensation for passengers, the Transport Secretary said: "It goes beyond what the airlines are responsible for, this should be covered under travel insurance policies but we will talk to the insurance industry today to make sure they treat claims reasonably.

"This is certainly not linked to terrorism in the conventional sense, this is something I would hope the insurance industry would take an enlightened view about."

Gatwick chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe could not rule out the possibility of future drone disruption.

"What we need to be going forward is work with technology providers and with the Government to enhance our ability to address the risk posed by drones to airports," he said.

"We have been working with technology providers ourselves for the last 12 months but stood here today, there is no commercially available airport-licensed proven technology that I could implement."

Asked if there is anything in place to stop the same thing happening again once the military leave, he said: "My number one priority is going to be the safety of our passengers. And so, if the drone comes and endangers an aircraft then we will suspend runway operations because safety is the number one priority."

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