Two held over London airport drone chaos as flights resume

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Gatwick warned passengers to expect more delays and cancellations as the airport continues to recover from three days of disruption

Gatwick warned passengers to expect some delays and cancellations “as we continue to recover our operations following three days of disruption” (AFP Photo/Ben STANSALL)

London (AFP) – Two middle-aged people were being held Saturday over the suspected “criminal use of drones” at London’s Gatwick Airport, where flights were returning to normal after three days of pre-Christmas disruption affecting 140,000 passengers.

Police swooped on a 47-year-old man and a 54-year-old woman from town of Crawley, which neighbours Britain’s second-busiest airport.

A Gatwick spokesman said the airport planned to run a full schedule of 757 flights carrying 124,484 passengers on Saturday.

But he warned that passengers should expect some delays and cancellations “as we continue to recover our operations”.

“We are grateful for passengers’ continued patience as we work to get them to their final destination in time for Christmas,” the spokesman said.

Drones were first sighted buzzing around Gatwick on Wednesday then reappeared more than 50 times, forcing the government to bring in specialist military resources to help counter the threat.

The dangers posed by drones include the possibility of a device smashing into a passenger plane or being sucked up into an engine where its highly flammable lithium battery could cause a catastrophe.

The two people arrested late Friday were being held on suspicion of “disrupting services of civil aviation aerodrome to endanger or likely to endanger safety of operations or persons”.

“Our investigations are still on-going, and our activities at the airport continue to build resilience to detect and mitigate further incursions from drones, by deploying a range of tactics,” said Sussex Police superintendent James Collis.

The army was called in on Thursday to offer support, with the defence ministry deploying what was described only as specialist equipment.

Government officials held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation.

– Law change –

Under recently-introduced laws in Britain, drones cannot be flown near aircraft or within a kilometre (about half a mile) of an airport, or at an altitude of over 400 feet (122 metres).

Violators face up to five years in prison for endangering an aircraft.

The Times newspaper reported Saturday that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had shelved plans earlier this year to introduce laws regulating drone use despite being warned about the risk they posed to airports.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “Next year further laws will come into effect to ensure drone users must be registered and pass safety tests.

“We are continuing to introduce further measures and recently consulted on extending police powers to deal with people who misuse drones, as well working on the development of counter-drone technology to ensure incidents like this can’t happen again.”

Justin Burtenshaw, head of armed policing for Sussex and Surrey, described the cat-and-mouse hunt for the drone operators.

“Each time we believe we get close to the operator, the drone disappears. When we look to reopen the airfield the drone reappears,” he said Thursday.

Darcis, 32, who was supposed to arrive from Milan on Thursday and had to sleep at the airport, said: “I cannot understand why such a small thing can cause an international airport like Gatwick (to close). They should be ready for these things. I really don’t understand what we can do.”

Gatwick, around 30 miles (50 kilometres) south of the British capital, is the eighth-busiest airport in Europe and sits behind Mumbai as the world’s busiest single-runway air hub.

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