Drone sightings shut down London’s Gatwick Airport on Wednesday night and the second-busiest U.K. airport remained closed on Thursday as law enforcement investigated what it called a “deliberate act.”
The incident stranded thousands of passengers during the busy Christmas travel period, as flights were grounded, while others were diverted to other airports. Gatwick serves more than 100,000 passengers a day, making it the second-busiest in the country after London Heathrow.
The drone flights near Gatwick’s airfield appeared to be “deliberate” but not an act of terror, according to Sussex Police.
The incident highlights concerns among air safety regulators about preventing drones from flying close to aircraft and airfields, as the devices become more popular and easily obtainable.
Airlines offered passengers free flight changes due to the disruption. Budget carrier easyJet said it would reimburse travelers’ “reasonable expenses” who arrange for alternative transportation.
Passengers whose trips had been disrupted vented their frustration on social media. One traveler wrote that she had taken a “tour of every London airport” after stops at Stansted and Heathrow, while a man who said he had been redirected to Paris wondered if his dog would walk itself.
The scene at the airport terminals was one of bedlam as stranded passengers unable to make alternative plans with airlines by phone swamped ticket counters in the terminals. Crowds of people slumped over their luggage, refreshing their phone screens in the hopes of getting updated flight information. Others, seeming utterly defeated, appeared to stare off into space.
Erica Perez, a personal trainer bound for Nice, France, for Christmas, was waiting in the easyJet line. She said she had been waiting on hold for more than an hour trying to get through to someone at the budget airline until her battery died. The line at the airport, she said, had not moved in three hours.
“How will they rearrange these flights for all these people?” Ms. Perez said. “All the flights tomorrow are already fully booked for Christmas weekend.”
Alison Carter, who teaches German, said she was baffled at how such a thing could happen.
“How does the airport not have the resources to down the drone?” she said. “What kind of message does this give to terrorists and criminals?”
By the afternoon, many airlines were offering refunds rather than rescheduling flights because of the high demand.