Gatwick disruption: Business interests trump safety regulations, aviation bodies say

Counter-drone measures are not going far enough in the fight against irresponsible individuals prepared to endanger the lives of passengers and aviation staff, it has been claimed.

Both the British Airline Pilots’ Association and the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers claim that warnings in the past have fallen on deaf ears and business interests have been put as a higher priority.

It comes after a day of misery for passengers at Gatwick Airport where approximately 110,000 holidaymakers have been left grounded for anything up to 15 hours after the runway was closed at 9pm on Wednesday (19 December) after two drone devices were spotted near the airfield.

Despite briefly reopening at 3am this morning, it was closed again by staff about 45 minutes later after another device was seen. Gatwick Airport was briefly closed because of drone activity in 2017, with five flights diverted but disruption caused over the past day is something never seen before. 

More than 20 police units throughout the day from two police forces have been searching for the perpetrator. Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw, of Sussex Police, said he believed it to be a “deliberate act to disrupt the airport”.

Gatwick Airport said police did not want to shoot the drones down because of the risk from stray bullets, while Sussex Police said there was no evidence to suggest it was “terrorism-related”.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) now wants authorities and the government to do more to ensure scenes over the last 24 hours are not repeated and is calling for a much bigger exclusion zone for drones around airports. The union also wants drones to be registered and their operators tested.

Brian Strutton, general secretary of the BALPA, said: “We have been working closely with the Department for Transport on these issues, and we were pleased to see new drone laws put in place earlier this year, but we said they do not go far enough. The government was clear to BALPA that they were open to extending the 1km exclusion zone, and it is now obvious that must happen urgently. BALPA is calling for a 5km exclusion zone.

Whereas, the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers claims its calls for stricter regulations and enforcement have been “repeatedly dismissed by regulatory bodies”.

A statement added: “GATCO has been advocating for geofencing and other counter drone measures to be implemented to combat the threat posed by unlawful drone users. Unfortunately, business interests have had a higher priority than regulations and enforcement supported by appropriate technology. While GATCO recognises the many benefits drone technology can bring to our society, safety must remain the top priority.

A spokesperson for Gatwick added: "We are extremely disappointed that passengers are being affected by this, especially at such an important time of year. We are prioritising the welfare of those at the airport by deploying staff into our terminals to look after people as best we can.”

It is unknown when the airport will reopen but reports suggest that flights will be cancelled until at least 7pm.

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