Skip to content
CityLab
Transportation

Who Keeps Buzzing London's Airports With Drones?

Heathrow Airport was briefly shut down after a drone sighting, and Gatwick Airport endured three days of drone-related security delays.  
A drone sighting shut down Heathrow Airport, just weeks after a similar episode at London's Gatwick Airport.
A drone sighting shut down Heathrow Airport, just weeks after a similar episode at London's Gatwick Airport.Matt Dunham/AP

For London’s airports, the weeks straddling the new year have been chaotic to say the least. Yesterday, Heathrow—Europe’s busiest airport—closed its runway briefly following a security alert. In normal times, this inconvenience wouldn’t attract much attention, but this alert came after Gatwick, London’s second airport, was forced to close for 36 hours, stretching over three days. The stoppages grounded 1,000 planes and affected the holiday journeys of an estimated 140,000 people. But it wasn’t (as far as we know) a terrorist threat or a staff strike that caused these disruptions. It was sighting of that small but increasingly ubiquitous and reviled item of contemporary electronic equipment: the drone.

Indeed, the past month has seen drones become something of an obsession around London. Over the past three weeks, the region’s police, air traffic controllers, and even its armed forces have been squinting at the sky, trying to work out if tiny airborne intruders are heading for its runways. At Gatwick on December 19, over 60 people claimed to have spotted a drone or drones close to the terminal. Infuriatingly, the drones seemed to reappear just at the point when the airport was about to start flights again, triggering a gridlock of frustrated passengers in the terminals.