We’ve all experienced some form of travel disruption, usually as a result of adverse weather conditions or an unfortunate traffic accident. As frustrating as it is, it’s just one of those things that must be tolerated and overcome. It may involve seeking an alternative route, accepting an inevitable delay or cancelling our plans altogether. More often than not, we’re annoyed by the inconvenience but thankful not to be involved in what caused the disruption in the first place.

The major incident at London’s Gatwick Airport last month, however, was a little harder to swallow. By flying a drone directly over the airport, it is alleged that someone deliberately set out to cause major disruption by grounding thousands of flights during one of the busiest periods of the year. Almost one hundred and twenty thousand passengers were affected by the resulting chaos, their flights either cancelled, delayed or diverted. It’s one thing having to suffer such inconvenience as the result of a snow storm, for example, but knowing that someone deliberately set out to sabotage the plans of others is beyond belief.

The first drone was allegedly spotted on Wednesday 19th December, forcing the airport to ground all flights. The drone was apparently of a commercial nature, thus substantial in size and an obvious threat to aircraft. There were over fifty reported sightings of the drone in a twenty-four hour period but no clue as to the operator. While airport officials, police and security services were focused on finding the culprit, thousands of passengers were forced to seek overnight accommodation, prepare for a diversion to an alternative city/country, or endure endless waiting inside the airport. Some, having already boarded, were stranded on the aircraft itself as it sat on the tarmac. What gives someone the right to cause such mayhem?

Flights were resumed on Friday 21st December after previous attempts to re-open the runway were thwarted by reports of further drone sightings. Whilst some passengers were able to continue with their festive arrangements, albeit late, others had to abandon their plans altogether, the lengthy delay proving too much to overcome. It’s worth remembering that not everyone travels for fun. Some passengers take flights in order to visit sick relatives, attend funerals or help with aid relief in communities less fortunate than their own.

At the time of writing, no-one has been charged in connection with the incident. Speculation as to the motive behind the disruption therefore continues. It is widely believed, but not confirmed, that environmental activists were behind the disruption, their intention to reduce aircraft CO2 emissions as well as raise awareness of the damage caused to the environment by modern-day flights. It’s true that the carbon footprint of air travel is one of increasing concern (one economy class flight from Kuwait to London leaves a footprint of 1.6 tonnes of CO2) but deliberately disrupting the travel plans of thousands of people is not the way to gain support.

Research shows that even those with strong climate change concerns are unwilling to alter their flying habits. If I’m honest, I probably fall within that category myself. But if people think they can change my mind by grounding flights, inconveniencing thousands of travellers and putting lives at risk, they are very much mistaken. Far from gaining sympathy and support, this kind of action will merely enrage and alienate.

Safety issues have long been the subject of debate in relation to drones. The exclusion zone for drones in the UK is currently only 1km from airports and there have been several reports of near misses between drones and commercial aircraft. The recent incident at Gatwick highlights the importance of extending this exclusion zone but unfortunately it is of no consequence if someone has the malicious intent to suspend flights and maximise disruption.

But what if there was no drone in the first place? Despite numerous reported sightings of the unmanned aerial vehicle, it is now suspected that no such UAV threat existed. Could environmental activists still be to blame, their intention to fabricate sightings in order to cause widespread panic? Or perhaps it was the act of a prankster getting kicks from the publicity received and subsequent disruption caused. Either way, it is far from acceptable and more than a little worrying that the perpetrator remains untraced. The fact that no-one has claimed responsibility could even support the theory that actually, there was no drone at all.

And spare a thought for the couple who were arrested and publicly named before being released without charge in connection with the incident. If those caught up in the chaos felt aggrieved by the disruption, imagine how it felt to be detained for thirty-six hours and named and shamed by the press. The on-going consequences for this innocent couple go way beyond the inconvenience of a delayed flight or a cancelled holiday.

No doubt people are still recovering from the repercussions of this unprecedented incident. The financial and emotional implications are massive but so too is the threat of a repeat situation. With no clue as to the offender or motive or, in fact, any evidence that the threat ever existed, it’s a subject likely to drone on for a long time yet.


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