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The Gatwick Airport Drone: FAQs

How the drone at Gatwick will impact the future of aviation.

Any frequent flier will know that flight delays are part and parcel of the whole experience. Arriving at the airport for your scheduled flight is often an exercise of hope rather than expectation; a delayed flight, strong headwinds, and security concerns can all delay flights and interrupt travel plans, and most of us surrender to the fact that flights are always subject to change as a result.

In December 2018, however, those flying from or to London Gatwick Airport – the second-largest in the UK – found their flights cancelled or delayed for a reason far beyond the norm: a rogue drone.

The drone was first noticed on December 19th and, initially, the disruption was minimal – some flights were diverted, but the runway reopened in the early hours of the morning. However, following a number of further drone sightings, the runway was again closed, causing huge disruption at one of the busiest travel times of the year.

What flights were affected?

All flights were suspended as a result of the drone attack; civilian aircraft, leisure flyers, and private jets were all grounded.

Why did Gatwick close the entire runway as a result of the drone?

Passenger aircraft are huge, powerful machines, which makes it hard to imagine a small, relatively lightweight drone could pose much of a threat to them. However, aircraft are surprisingly vulnerable, especially during take off. While a drone smashing into a stationary plane would just result in a broken drone, the speeds aircraft have to achieve in order to take off transform drones – and any other kind of object – into dangerous projectiles that could cause a catastrophic crash.

How much damage can a drone cause?

A significant amount, as this Tweet details:

Despite the severity of the damage sustained, the flight above was lucky. Many flights have actually crashed due to object collisions, with the Paris Concorde crash in 2001 perhaps the most well-known example; debris on the runway collided with the Concorde’s fuel tank on takeoff, resulting in total loss of life for those on board. It is not stretching the bounds of supposition to state that a rogue drone could cause a similar disaster, hence Gatwick’s closure of its runway.

Why didn’t Gatwick just shoot the drone down?

The UK did eventually deploy snipers to try and shoot the drone down, but simply put, precision shooting is an art – and there is huge potential for mistakes to be made. Gatwick Airport is not an isolated airport; it’s situated close to the town of Crawley, and there was a real risk that a stray bullet could cause severe harm in such a residential area. Ultimately, Gatwick felt that – despite the disruption – it was safer for all concerned to wait and hope the drones eventually disappeared.

Can improvements in aircraft design help to prevent drone strikes posing such a significant threat in future?

Modern aircraft design is truly a wonder to behold, ranging from huge two-storey commercial jets to the incredible developments found in the fastest private jets in the world: past, present and future innovations are undeniably impressive. However, despite these advances, there is relatively little that can be done in terms of aircraft design to fortify against drone collisions – any projectile striking any plane will always pose a threat.

So how can this situation be prevented in future?

The main focus is primarily on preventing drones from accessing runways at all. There are numerous systems already in place at some airports to assist with this task, and the chances are that these systems – rather than aircraft design – will be the focus in future.

Will the Gatwick passengers be entitled to compensation?

Any traveler knows that some of the downsides of air travel can be offset by compensation but, realistically, it looks unlikely that those impacted by the Gatwick closures will be able to claim much at all. A rogue drone on the runway counts as an “exceptional circumstance”, so the airlines are unlikely to be required to provide compensation.

However, travelers who have been forced to cancel their trip due to missed flights or connections may be entitled to make a claim.

In conclusion

On first inspection, the idea that a major international airport could be closed by a single rogue drone is a rather strange one, but legitimate safety precautions made such an extreme measure a necessity. It can only be hoped that, for the sake of travelers everywhere, drone-preventing technology will soon become commonplace across all airports in order to prevent such a scenario repeating itself in future.

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