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Major British airport forced to shut down for at least 19 hours by someone flying drones over the runway

Business Insider logo Business Insider 12/20/2018 Sinéad Baker
a view of a city at night © YouTube/Business Insider
  • Gatwick Airport, the second-biggest airport in the UK, will be closed for at least 19 hours due to someone flying drones over the runway.
  • More than 65,000 people are affected by the disruption, and cancellations continue to rack up.
  • People were put up in hotels overnight while some travelers reported being sleeping on grounded planes.
  • Police are hunting for the operator, who they say is doing this deliberately.
  • Disrupting an airport with a drone is a crime which carries a five-year prison sentence.

A major British airport has been forced to close for at least 19 hours - disrupting the journeys of more than 65,000 people - because someone is flying drones over the runway.

Staff at Gatwick Airport, near London, spotted two drones over the runway at 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, and closed it.

The closure prompted a massive police response, with at least 20 separate units dispatched to scour the land around Gatwick's airfield and find the drone operator. So far they have been unsuccessful.

Chris Woodroffe, the airport's chief operating officer, told the BBC at 12 p.m. on Thursday that drones had been seen on the runway again in the previous hour. While it is closed no planes can take off or land.

He told the BBC on Thursday afternoon that the "vast majority" of the 110,000 passengers scheduled to travel through the airport on Thursday would be affected by delays or cancellations. At the most conservative estimate, this means 55,000 people.

10,000 people were affected on Wednesday night, he said.

Euro Control, the European aviation agency, said that the airport will remain closed until at least 4 p.m. on Thursday - 19 hours after it originally shut down. Woodroffe told the BBC that he could not say when the airport would open again. 

a pile of luggage sitting on top of a suitcase © REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Gatwick is the UK's second-largest airport, with 56 airlines operating regularly and an estimated 45 million passengers a year. The airport said that it is expecting 2.9 million passengers to travel through the airport over the festive period. 

This video visualization shows the disruption caused to flights when a drone was spotted near Gatwick's runway in 2017, forcing a similar closure:

People slept in the airport terminal and on grounded planes.

Woodroffe apologized to passengers on "Today," and condemned the "irresponsible" act. Police say it is a "deliberate act" but that there are no indications that the action is terror-related.

Flying a drone less than one kilometer (0.6 miles) from the protected space around an airport is illegal in the UK and can result in a five-year prison sentence.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd © REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Woodroffe said that 20 police units were searching the area around the airport to find the drone operator. He said that the police did not want to shoot them down because of "what might happen with stray bullets."

Gatwick Airport is warning passengers not to travel to the airport before checking the status of their flight with their airline. Woodroffe said that the airport was working with airlines to build a schedule for redirected flights and to inform passengers.

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