Gatwick drone chaos – Police better placed to respond to any future incidents

Gatwick Airport's runway was shut down just days before Christmas last year
Gatwick Airport's runway was shut down just days before Christmas last year

Responding to the drone chaos at Gatwick Airport last Christmas cost Sussex Police more than £790,000, according to the force’s Chief Constable.

Speaking at a meeting on Friday (October 18), Giles York told Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne the “unprecedented” operation had cost Sussex Police around £790,200, despite it receiving support from other forces and government agencies. 

Known as Operation Trebor, the full operation involved more than 800 police officers from seven police forces, as well as advisors from the military and the private sector.

While much of the cost had fallen on the force, Mrs Bourne told the Chief Constable she hoped the force might receive special grant funding from Government due to the nature of the incident.

She said: “You know, as do I, that we have contingencies for this, reserves for these sort of public order and major events. 

“However I did feel the need to write to the minister to request some assistance and as you know we did get a letter back for our special grant application.

“Now we didn’t think we would get anything  because we are under the criteria they would normally require, but interestingly,  his letter back has said the grant is under consideration, so it wasn’t no forever. 

“My feeling around this was, because this is an international issue – whilst local taxpayers of course have funded this – at the end of the day a lot of learning has come out of it nationally and it would be good to see some pick up from elsewhere.”

The incident took place in the run up to Christmas last year, seeing around 140,000 passengers caught up in chaos as flights at the airport were grounded for 30 hours.

According to Sussex Police, there had been a 129 separate drone sightings reported over the course of the incident with 109 of these from “credible witnesses” including a pilot and airport police.

Police say the witness statements show activity happened in ‘groupings’ across the three days on 12 separate occasions, varying in length from between seven and 45 minutes. On six of these occasions, witnesses clearly saw two drones operating at the same time.

The pattern of the drone sightings, Mr York said, also indicated that the offenders had “a significant knowledge of airfield operations”.

But without new information, Sussex Police last month confirmed it had “no further realistic lines of enquiry” in its investigation of the incident, having ruled out 96 people of interest. 

However, Mr York said the force was now much better placed to respond to should a similar attack take place in the future.

He said: “I think we are in a completely different position today than we were a year ago.

“The development of our current response plans from the learning gathered alongside the operation  and the investment that was made in drone mitigation technologies, have afforded the police and our partners with significantly improved capability and capacity to mitigate and investigate further threats of incursions.

“Gatwick have invested in a range of technology, which is consistently under review, and we are working closely with the Home Office, the national counter drone team and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure to monitor this in line with future advancements.

“This includes detection, tracking and mitigation technology which is key to both preventing incidents occurring but also increasing investigative opportunities to trace offenders.”

The Chief Constable also said the incident had “exposed gaps in the range of counter-drone measures available at the time” and said he believed the force would have benefitted from a national counter-drone response plan.

He also said lessons learnt from the incident had seen changes at other airports in the UK and around the world.

Mr York said: “The incident was unprecedented anywhere in the world to the best of our knowledge and led to the airport being closed for 30 hours. 

“It was a serious and deliberate criminal act designed to endanger airport operations and the safety of the travelling public. 

“Maintaining and protecting public safety was the overriding objective of the police response and operation.”