U.K. Airport Remains Closed After Drones Disrupt Travel

U.K. Airport Remains Closed After Drones Disrupt Travel

- in Travel
20

LONDON—Authorities took the dramatic step Thursday of grounding flights all day at one of Europe’s busiest airports, upending plans for more than 100,000 passengers, after what they said was a deliberate attempt to use drones to disrupt travel.

The incident at Gatwick Airport, about an hour’s drive south of London, punctuates the growing threat to civil aviation by unmanned aircraft. It follows a series of other recent drone incidents, including a collision last week with a suspected drone and a passenger jet in Mexico. Worries over drones have disrupted airport operations before, but never for such a long time at such a large airport.

Several hundred flights in and out of Gatwick were grounded Thursday, stranding, diverting or delaying tens of thousands of passengers just ahead of the year-end holiday travel rush.

The airport is the country’s second-busiest, behind London Heathrow, and serves as a gateway for several trans-Atlantic flights operated by

International Consolidated Airlines

Group SA’s

British Airways
,

Delta Air Lines

Inc. and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd.

Britain’s aviation minister, Liz Sugg, said police and the military were involved in the response. Sussex police said the drones were of an “industrial specification,” rather than a toy or amateur unmanned aircraft.

The British Defense Ministry late Thursday said it was dispatching specialist equipment to Gatwick to assist, but declined to specify the exact type. Authorities said they didn’t think the incident was terror related. Police had deployed helicopters to search for the drones and its operators and asked the public for help.

Commercial drones can be difficult to spot on radar because they are small, fly slowly and can hover. Some tools to bring them down, such as jammers that would disrupt their radio links, are hard to use in an environment where commercial planes rely on similar links.

Aerial Defenses

In response to increasing incidents of drones flying near sensitive facilities such as airports, researchers are testing systems to keep such unmanned aircraft at bay.

Radar is used to detect drone:

The radar system scans a horizontal area and can detect hundreds of objects per scan.

Camera used to identify drone:

A high-definition vertical scanning camera is used to track and help the operator identify the drone to determine if it constitutes a threat.

Jammer disrupts drone’s flight:

The jammer operates on multiple frequencies to block the drone’s GPS and communications link. Within seconds of applying the jammer, the drone is either forced to ground or returns to its home.

Radar is used to detect drone:

The radar system scans a horizontal area and can detect hundreds of objects per scan.

Camera used to identify drone:

A high-definition vertical scanning camera is used to track and help the operator identify the drone to determine if it constitutes a threat.

Jammer disrupts drone’s flight:

The jammer operates on multiple frequencies to block the drone’s GPS and communications link. Within seconds of applying the jammer, the drone is either forced to ground or returns to its home.

Radar is used to detect drone:

The radar system scans a horizontal area and can detect hundreds of objects per scan.

Camera used to identify drone:

A high-definition vertical scanning camera is used to track and help the operator identify the drone to determine if it constitutes a threat.

Jammer disrupts drone’s flight:

The jammer operates on multiple frequencies to block the drone’s GPS and communications link. Within seconds of applying the jammer, the drone is either forced to ground or returns to its home.

Radar is used to detect drone:

The radar system scans a horizontal area and can detect hundreds of objects per scan.

Camera used to identify drone:

A high-definition vertical scanning camera is used to track and help the operator identify the drone to determine if it constitutes a threat.

Jammer disrupts drone’s flight:

The jammer operates on multiple frequencies to block the drone’s GPS and communications link. Within seconds of applying the jammer, the drone is either forced to ground or returns to its home.

The disruption comes a week after authorities in Mexico started investigating a possible collision between a drone and a Boeing 737 jetliner. The Aeromexico flight sustained damage to the nose on landing, though the plane landed safely.

Drone attacks have become a growing menace beyond commercial aviation. In August, Venezuela’s government said drones were used in an assassination attempt of President Nicolás Maduro. A Russian military base in Syria came under drone attack this year. U.S. firefighters battling the blazes in California this year at times had to halt flights dropping fire retardants because of the presence of drones.

The drones began buzzing Gatwick late Wednesday and continued into Thursday, the airport operator said.

Flights, including some to the U.S., were canceled and others diverted to land at other airports.

Airlines warned the spillover effect could affect travel on Friday.

Gatwick is principally used for intra-European flights by airlines such as British Airways and budget carrier

easyJet

PLC. But it also serves intercontinental flights, with British Airways, Delta, Virgin Atlantic, and

Norwegian Air

Shuttle ASA using the facility for U.S. flights including to New York, Las Vegas and Orlando.

Air safety authorities have become increasingly concerned about the rapid growth in the use of commercial drones, often as toys.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration now tracks more than 1,000 suspected incidents of near misses between planes and unmanned aircraft a year. Some of those reports turn out to be spurious.

Heathrow, the main gateway for Americans traveling to Europe, said it had increased patrols around the airport in response to what happened at Gatwick. Gatwick’s Chief Executive Stewart Wingate said a drone shouldn’t be able to close vital infrastructure. “This is obviously a relatively new technology,” he said, adding “we need to think through together the right solutions to make sure it cannot happen again.”

The risk has created growing demand for systems to protect against such incursions, including from the military. Some of these systems use radar or acoustic sensors to spot the drones. Others are designed to force a drone to land. Governments have pressed drone makers to install systems on their equipment that bar them from flying in protected airspace, such as airports and military installations.At Gatwick, flight operations were halted Wednesday at 9:03 p.m. local time after two drone sightings were reported. The facility reopened at 3:01 a.m. Thursday before closing less than 45 minutes later because of renewed concerns about drone flights at the airfield.

Julie Herbain boarded her flight late Wednesday, only to sit on the tarmac for hours before being let off the plane. Ms. Herbain was traveling to Morocco to celebrate Christmas with family. “I may just have to go home,” she said.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority on Thursday said it was totally unacceptable to operate drones near an airport. In the U.K., it is illegal to operate a drone within 1 kilometer (0.62 mile) of an airport or at an altitude above 400 feet. Those flying the drones illegally could face a five-year prison sentence, Ms. Sugg said.

Ilaria Santeramo was planning to go to Buenos Aires on a one-month honeymoon with her husband. Instead late Thursday, she was nervously watching the airport’s flight updates for the couple’s Norwegian Air flight, due to depart just after 9 p.m. “They said it was delayed, delayed and then canceled,” she said. “Why can’t they just shoot down the drone?”

If they can’t get another flight, or reroute, the next option would be to fly on Christmas Day, with another airline, at a cost of over £4,000, she said.

The concern about drones often increases around the holiday season, when they are often bought as presents.

In November, a British man was fined and had to forfeit his drone after a court ruled the unmanned aircraft was flown too close to a police helicopter. But this was a rare success for authorities who often struggle to apprehend and prosecute drone operators.

Pilot groups have become increasingly vocal about the risks to flights and passenger safety.

“Even two kilograms of metal and plastic, including the battery, hitting an aircraft windscreen or engine or a helicopter tail rotor, could be catastrophic,” Rob Hunter, head of flight safety at the British Airline Pilots’ Association, said earlier in December.

Write to Robert Wall at robert.wall@wsj.com

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