London: Tens of thousands of passengers were stranded at Gatwick Airport, one of the UK’s busiest, as flights to and from the airport were suspended on Thursday due to reports of two drones being flown over the airfield.
Gatwick’s runway remained closed and the airport said in a statement that landings and takeoffs were first suspended at 9 p.m. on Wednesday following reports of drones flying over the airfield.
At least 110,000 passengers on 760 flights were due to use the airport on Thursday, the BBC reported.
About 10,000 passengers were affected overnight on Wednesday. Many planes were diverted to other airports including Luton, Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester and as far away as Paris and Amsterdam. Airport authorities requested passengers to contact the respective airlines to know the status of their flights.
The airport said that it was investigating the drone sightings along with the Sussex Police. Later, a police spokesman said that the incident was not terror-related and a hunt was on for the drone operator.
Gatwick Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe apologized to passengers and said the drones could not be shot down because of the risk of stray bullets causing harm. He said the two drones had been seen flying “over the perimetre fence and into where the runway operates from”, sparking “very significant disruption”.
Crowds of passengers waited inside Gatwick’s terminal for updates, while others reported being stuck on waiting planes which were unable to land.
The airport said it was working with airlines to provide affected passengers with hotel accommodation or alternative travel arrangements.
It is illegal in the UK to use unmanned aerial vehicles within one kilometre of airports, and endangering an airplane carries a five-year prison term.
Explaining the chaos following the incident, a passenger from Cyprus, Andri Kyprianou, said: “There were pregnant women, one of them was sleeping on the floor.”
“There were people with small babies in here overnight, we saw disabled people on chairs. There were young children sleeping on the floor.”
Another passenger, Kasia Jaworska, told the BBC: “You would imagine there would be better security in place and emergency action for something like that.”
An estimated 2.9 million passengers pass through the airport during the ongoing holiday season.