Passengers flying from Gatwick Airport have been told not to travel to the airport today, with all incoming and outgoing flights currently suspended.
At least 20,000 passengers have already been affected, with hundreds of thousands of journeys likely to be disrupted in the coming days. Gatwick's operations chief Chris Woodroofe said those travelling home for Christmas will face disruption for at least another 24 hours, and could not say when flights would resume.
The airport received reports of two drones flying over its airfield at around 9pm last night, which prompted its immediate closure until 3am. The airport then had to be closed again from 3:45am, as further sightings of drones were reported.
All flights landing at Gatwick this morning have been diverted to other airports, including some in France and the Netherlands. Flights scheduled to take off from Gatwick have been grounded until further notice, with the airport advising airlines to cancel all flights until at least 4pm today.
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May said those flying the drones were "irresponsible and completely unacceptable", voicing sympathy for travellers who have had their travel plans disrupted days before Christmas.
Passengers flying either today or tomorrow have been strongly advised to check the status of their flight with their airline before travelling to the airport.
14.15: Our runway is still closed because of drone sightings. Flights are cancelled up to at least 16.00 today, while we constantly review the situation. Please do not set out for the airport for your flight without checking with your airline first. We're sorry for the disruption
— Gatwick Airport LGW (@Gatwick_Airport) December 20, 2018
More than 20 police units are in the process of searching for the operators of the drones. A representative for Sussex Police said there is no indication of the drone threat being terror-related.
As of July this year it is illegal to fly a drone within 1km of an airport or airfield boundary in the UK, as they can strike planes and cause damage. Some drones have been fitted with special software to force the technology into shut-down mode if it is thought to be near an airfield.
Those caught flouting the law could face maximum fines of £2,500, or up to five years in prison.
A Gatwick spokesperson said airlines were working to provide affected passengers with appropriate assistance, including hotel accommodation or to transport those being diverted to other airports back to Gatwick.
Those meeting someone from a flight have been advised to check the airport's live flight information on its website for up-to-date information.
"I have a drone on my airfield… and #Gatwick will not be able to reopen until that drone is brought down" – Gatwick's Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe apologises to passengers and says flights to and from the airport remain suspended https://t.co/CotwzsvcTn pic.twitter.com/FDH2v91cvV
"It's definitely not a standard, off-the-shelf type drone," Woodroofe told the BBC this morning on the radio. "Given what has happened I definitely believe it is a deliberate act, yes."
"We also have the helicopter up in the air but 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," he added.
The latest statement from Gatwick, released just after 1:45pm, said:
"We are extremely disappointed that what appears to be deliberate action is affecting journeys at this important time of year. We are working tirelessly with our airlines to put plans in place to recover our operation once given the go ahead that our runway can re-open."
"We anticipate disruption to continue throughout the day and into tomorrow. Any passengers due to fly today or tomorrow should not set off for Gatwick without checking flight information with their airline."
"Once again we apologise for the continued disruption. Safety is our absolute priority."