Gatwick airport says it has reopened the runway after a confirmed sighting of a drone near the airfield on Friday evening. Gatwick was shut down all of Thursday and for several hours on Wednesday evening due to drone sightings.

Gatwick was forced to close for 36 hours, this week, stranding more than 100,000 Christmas travellers, when a mystery saboteur used drones to play cat-and-mouse with police snipers.
Gatwick was forced to close for 36 hours, this week, stranding more than 100,000 Christmas travellers, when a mystery saboteur used drones to play cat-and-mouse with police snipers. (Reuters)

Flights at Britain's second-biggest airport Gatwick have resumed after a brief suspension following unconfirmed reports of another drone sighting on Friday evening, an airport spokeswoman said.

"Flights have now resumed at Gatwick following a reported drone in the area," she said.

"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 reassurance necessary that it is safe tore-open our airfield."

Gatwick, south of London, was forced to close for 36 hours, this week, stranding more than 100,000 Christmas travellers, when a mystery saboteur used drones to play cat-and-mouse with police snipers.

Earlier, Britain sent troops to the airport after an unprecedented attempt to cripple Christmas travel with large drones forced all flights to be cancelled on Thursday.

The airport said early on Friday it was currently working with airlines and air traffic controllers to introduce a limited number of flights over the coming hours.

As thousands of passengers waited at the airport south of London, police hunted unsuccessfully for the operators of the large drones which first appeared on Wednesday, then kept reappearing near the airfield every time the airport tried to reopen the runway.

TRT World's Reagan Des Vignes reports.

Police have not speculated publicly on the motive for what appears to be a coordinated and intentional effort to sow chaos at one of the annual peak travel times.

TRT World's Sarah Morice reports from London.

PM May warns drone operators

Prime Minister Theresa May a legislation has already been passed in relation to the use of drones and it is clear that the current activity is illegal.

"The activity we've seen is illegal and those who are caught endangering aircraft can face up to five years in prison," said Prime Minister Theresa May. 

Use of firearms

"The assessment earlier on today was that we wouldn't be using firearms," Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley said late on Thursday. 

"This is continually reviewed so you will know and have seen that we have firearm officers deployed."

"We are there to assist and do everything we can," Defence Minister Gavin Williamson told reporters.

Drones were seen as recently as 2200 GMT on Thursday, more than 24 hours after their first sighting.

A police helicopter flies over the closed runway at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, on December 20, 2018.
A police helicopter flies over the closed runway at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, on December 20, 2018. (Reuters)

Flights cancellation

Thursday's closure grounded about 115,000 people, who were scheduled to pass through, many en route to seasonal breaks.

Passenger Ani Kochiashvili had been bound for Georgia but 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 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."

Flights were halted at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted near the airfield, triggering the biggest disruption at Gatwick since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010.

Passengers wait in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, on December 20, 2018.
Passengers wait in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, on December 20, 2018. (Reuters)

Police hunting for operators

Police said more than 20 units were hunting the operators near Gatwick airport, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of London.

Transport minister Chris Grayling said it was clearly a deliberate act. "This is a commercial-sized drone," he said. "Every time Gatwick tries to re-open the runway, the drones reappear."

Grayling temporarily lifted night-flying restrictions at other airports to ease congestion caused by diverted aircraft, Sky News reported.

Drone and mayhem

With a surge in public enthusiasm for drones, there has been an increase in near-collisions by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets in recent years.

The number of near misses between private drones and aircraft in Britain more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year, according to the UK Airprox Board regulator.

Richard Parker, head of air traffic management technology firm Altitude Angel, said this was the first time a major airport had been hit by such a sustained and deliberate incursion into its airspace.

"It's sophisticated, not from a technology side, but it's organised. People have charged lots of batteries, and are deliberately trying to avoid being caught, probably by driving around to different locations," he said.

"It really is unprecedented."

Gatwick's Chief Operating Officer Chris 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.

'Copy-cat incidents'

Drone expert Peter Lee of Portsmouth University said he and others had been anticipating disruption.

"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," he said.

It is illegal to fly drones within 1 km (0.6 mile) of a British airport boundary, punishable by five years in prison.

Even after Gatwick re-opens, the backlog and disruption are expected to last for days.

Gatwick said it was working with its airlines, the biggest of which also include British Airways and Norwegian , on recovery plans once the runway re-opens.

Safety was its "foremost priority," it said.

Gatwick, which competes with Europe's busiest airport Heathrow, west of London, had previously said Sunday would be its busiest day of the festive period.

Passengers took to Twitter to share their stories.

One waiting at the airport said: "At Gatwick Airport, drone chaos, surprisingly good natured, but complete mayhem."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies