Complacency led to chaos, says Ian Taylor, Travel Weekly executive editor

The shutdown of London’s second airport by a drone was no accident, but it was waiting to happen.

Gatwick was unlucky. Yet, in general terms, the drone attack and the chaos it caused could be foreseen from the moment such devices – developed by the US military – went on commercial sale.

Flying drones over an airport perimeter fence was always going to shut an airport.

Some idiot, or worse, was always going to have a go at doing it. The surprise is that it has not happened before.

It is hard to see how the authorities could have responded in the immediate circumstances other than by grounding flights. A drone could do a lot of damage to an aircraft engine on take-off.

The European Regions Airline Association (ERA) noted ingestion of a drone by an engine “could be catastrophic”.

Yet knowledge of this reality may fall short of placating passengers who, unless a legal ruling in January sets a precedent, will find they are not entitled to compensation for drone-induced delays and cancellations.

Media reports suggested many passengers were nonplussed to learn a couple of drones could cause such paralysis. But then an abandoned bag can clear a building or halt rail traffic.

Improvements to procedures to disembark delayed passengers from aircraft would undoubtedly help another time. It is hard to see the point in keeping people trapped in their seats for hours on end, in hope of a sudden change in the situation.

Exclusion zone inadequate

The regional airlines’ association demand for “more robust and harmonised” safety regulations is eminently sensible.

It noted “the lack of regulation with regards to the ownership and use of drones” and called for “tougher laws and enforcement”.

The ERA advocates use of airport geo-fencing systems to track the trajectory of drones, “tougher laws and larger no-fly zones around airports” and a public education campaign.

It also demanded governments “expedite the regulation process of drone operations”.

Certainly, a one-kilometre drone exclusion zone around an airport perimeter appears seriously inadequate.

The British Airline Pilots Association noted there were 117 reported drone ‘incidents’ at airports between January and November this year.

It argued: “A drone at 400 feet, 1km from an airport is still directly in the flight path and that is plainly not safe, yet it is allowed.”

The Airport Operators Association pointed out: “Flying a drone near an airfield or endangering aircraft with a drone is a criminal offence with penalties of up to five years in jail.”

In light of what happened, that five-year maximum penalty seems certain to be superseded.

‘A highly targeted activity’

The location and timing of the incident, on the eve of one of the busiest departure periods of the year, ruled out accident or incompetence from the outset.

Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate described it as “a highly targeted activity, designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption”.

The airport first received reports of two drones flying in and around the airfield just after 21:00 on Wednesday when it “took immediate steps to close the runway in accordance with airport safety protocols”.

The police were still confirming drone sightings – reportedly about 50 in all – up to the early hours of Friday.

Late on Thursday, Wingate insisted: “Until we are confident the issue has been resolved it would clearly not be in the interests of passengers to [reopen] as we could be jeopardising their safety.”

On Friday morning the message had changed. Gatwick re-opened at 06:00 with this announcement:

“Overnight we have been able to work with partners, including Government agencies and the military to put measures in place which have provided the confidence we needed to re-open the runway and ensure the safety of passengers.”

At the time of writing, it was unclear what these measures were. The drone operator or operators had not been apprehended.

It smacked somewhat of the resolution to the volcanic ash threat of 2010 when flights were grounded for days until the authorities decided the risks were less than previously thought.

Risk of copy-cat attacks

The drones were described as “substantial” by the government, “commercial” by the Department for Transport, and “industrial” by the police, who said: “We don’t know the drone specification.

“Our assumption is it is larger than someone could buy online. We think it may have been adapted.”

The police told the BBC: “Each time we believe we get close to the operator the drone disappears.” This was clearly more than a jape by the perpetrators – almost certainly plural.

It would be astonishing of those responsible are not identified. Regrettably, my guess is we should expect to see copy-cat attacks at other airports even if this particular incident proves a one-off.

Thankfully, the Gatwick event appears not to have been terror-related. Yet it seems only a matter of time before such an attack using drones does occur.

On the plus side, the Gatwick episode will perhaps serve in driving efforts to stiffen security before we witness something worse.

Personally, I hope it was not in any way related to environmental issues. Were that the case, it would risk seriously eroding sympathy for concerns that are vital to address.