Picture: 123RF/Максим Кузубов
Picture: 123RF/Максим Кузубов

London’s Gatwick airport shut down operations on Wednesday night after reports of two drones flying over the airfield, a modern-day menace the aviation industry is struggling to manage.

Police are investigating the incident, Gatwick said in a Twitter statement. Flights were suspended for six hours from about 9pm  on Wednesday. After reopening for about 45 minutes, the airport halted services again at 3.45am local time on Thursday.

“We will update when we have suitable reassurance that it is appropriate to reopen the runway,” Gatwick said.

More than two dozen incoming flights were diverted, according to Flightradar24.

Unmanned aerial vehicles and laser pointers are increasingly becoming a safety threat for aircraft, prompting regulators to come up with new rules against operating the devices near airfields. Earlier this year, airspace around Wellington, New Zealand, was closed for 30 minutes after a drone was spotted flying close to the runway. In 2016, Dubai International Airport was closed temporarily.

Different birds

“In the past, trying to skirt around birds was hard enough and now you’ve got a different kind of bird made out of metal or plastic,” said Mohshin Aziz, an aviation analyst at Maybank Investment Bank in Kuala Lumpur. “A drone strike is far, far more damaging than a bird strike.”

Gatwick is allowed to operate a limited number of services at night, according to its website. On average, the airfield has 45 to 50 flights a night in the summer and 18 to 20 in the winter, it said. London is served by about half a dozen airports.

Last week, Grupo Aeromexico said it’s investigating whether a drone slammed into a Boeing 737 aircraft as the plane approached Tijuana, Mexico. The jet sustained damage to its nose but landed safely.

While most nations prohibit drones flying in pathways reserved for airliners, the millions of small consumer devices that have been bought around the world can’t be tracked on radar. That makes it difficult for authorities to enforce the rules. In addition, many users don’t know the restrictions — or don’t follow them.

With Rita Devlin Marier

Bloomberg