Not a week after I'd written about collisions between drones and commercial aircraft, and the threat this might pose to air travel (particularly in the hands of terrorists), what happens?
Tens of thousands of passengers were delayed, diverted or stuck on planes Thursday as the only runway at Britain’s Gatwick Airport remained closed into a second day after drones were spotted over the airfield.
The airport south of London — Britain’s second-busiest by passenger numbers — closed its runway Wednesday evening after two drones were spotted.
It reopened briefly at about 3 a.m. Thursday, but shut 45 minutes later after further sighting and remained closed at midday — 15 hours after the first sighting.
Police said the “devices used are of an industrial specification,” an indication that the drones weren’t small, inexpensive machines. A police helicopter was hovering near the airfield as officers from two nearby forces hunted the drone operators.
“The police advice is that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets,” said Chris Woodroofe, Gatwick’s chief operating officer.
. . .
All incoming and outgoing flights were suspended, and the airport’s two terminals were jammed with thousands of weary travelers, many of whom had spent the night on benches and floors.
Police said the drone flights were a “deliberate act to disrupt the airport,” but that there were “absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror-related.”
There were 20 police units from two forces searching for the elusive drone operator.
Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw, of Sussex Police, said the search was daunting.
“Each time we believe we get close to the operator, the drone disappears; when we look to reopen the airfield, the drone reappears,” he said.
. . .
Any problem at Gatwick causes a ripple effect throughout Britain and continental Europe, particularly during a holiday period when air traffic control systems are under strain.
Passengers complained on Twitter that their Gatwick-bound flights had landed at London Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities.
Luke McComiskie, who landed in Manchester — more than 160 miles (260 kilometers) from London — said the situation “was just chaos, and they had only two coaches (buses) and taxis charging people 600 pounds ($760) to get to Gatwick.”
There's more at the link.
How the police can assert there are "absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror-related", I can't understand. If I were a terrorist, I'd be laughing my ass off right now. At negligible risk of detection, I'd have shut down the second most important airport in London, and one of the most important in Britain. I'd have caused delays (and related expense) to tens of thousands of travelers; cost airlines and airports literally millions of dollars in related costs such as repositioning aircraft from where they've had to land, to collect passengers waiting for them at Gatwick; cost business and commerce tens of millions in delayed air freight deliveries (particularly perishable items), insurance claims, disrupted meetings and travel arrangements, and so on. There's also the cost of "20 police units from two forces searching for the elusive drone operator" - not a small expense in itself, plus the fact that those cops can't be chasing other criminals or investigating other crimes while they're distracted by the search.
I daresay the cost of the Gatwick disruptions will run well into the tens of millions of dollars by the time everything's added up. That's terror-level economic disruption, right there - yet not a single grain of explosives was required, and no-one had to be killed or injured. Even if the drone operators are caught, they can only be charged with disrupting airport traffic and disobeying air traffic control regulations. They'll get a smack on the wrist, a few years in prison at most - but their example will inspire countless others to do the same thing.
If this is a portent, we can expect to see more incidents like this at more and more British and European airports in coming months. It's cheap, easy, and ridiculously effective at disrupting air travel over half a continent, by the time you take every disruption and "ripple effect" into account. If I were Muslim terrorists, I'd be all over this like white on rice. You don't have enough volunteers willing to die in a terrorist act? Then why not persuade the weaker-willed members of your organization to do this instead, at greatly reduced risk to themselves? The most they'll face is a few years behind bars, rather than death.
Drones as a terror weapon? Oh, hell, yeah!