Ministers warn drone users of severe punishments after Gatwick misery

The couple quizzed by police over the travel chaos at Gatwick Airport have said they feel “completely violated” as ministers warned those responsible would be brought to justice.

Around 1,000 flights affecting some 140,000 passengers were cancelled or diverted across three days after drones were spotted inside the perimeter of the UK’s second biggest airport on Wednesday.

Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk, who were arrested and released without charge after two nights in custody when police said they were no longer suspects, said they felt “completely violated” and were left “deeply distressed”.

Drones close Gatwick airport
Drones close Gatwick airport

Their comments came on the same day the Government said detection systems are now able to be deployed across the UK to combat the threat of drones.

Security minister Ben Wallace said there was no easy solution to tackling drone incursions but warned those using them “recklessly” or illegally can expect severe punishments.

In a statement on Monday, Mr Wallace said the Government was now able to deploy detection systems throughout the UK to combat the threat.

He added: “The huge proliferation of such devices, coupled with the challenges of deploying military counter measures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions.

Drones close Gatwick airport
Drones close Gatwick airport

“However, I can say that we are able to now deploy detection systems throughout the UK to combat this threat.”

The Home Office minister warned that people using drones “recklessly” or illegally will face severe punishment and jail time when caught.

Mr Wallace added: “I am confident that Sussex Police, who continue to lead this challenging investigation with the utmost professionalism and commitment, will bring to justice those responsible for what are serious criminal acts that have caused disruption and misery to thousands of passengers.

“Those people who chose to use drones either recklessly or for criminal purposes can expect the most severe sentence and jail time when caught.”

Mr Gait and Ms Kirk said the way they were initially perceived following their arrest was “disgusting”, but following their release they had been “overwhelmed” by the support they have received.

Speaking outside their home in Crawley, West Sussex, on Christmas Eve, an emotional Mr Gait said the couple were “deeply distressed” by the experience and were currently receiving medical care.

The 47-year-old told reporters: “As you can probably imagine we are feeling completely violated.

“Our home has been searched and our privacy and identity completely exposed.

“Our names, photos and other personal information have been broadcast throughout the world.”

Mr Gait said he and Ms Kirk, 54, would try to get through Christmas “as best we can”.

#GatwickDrones We can unequivocally state between 19-21 Dec there have been numerous #drone sightings at @Gatwick_Airport. We want to bring those responsible for the disruption to justice and through @CrimestoppersUK there is a £50,000 reward

— Sussex Police (@sussex_police) December 24, 2018

There had been more than 200 sightings since the first drone was spotted in the Gatwick area on Wednesday, with police taking 67 statements, including from officers and airport staff.

Police are also carrying out a forensic investigation of a damaged drone found near the airport perimeter, close to the last reported sighting.

Detectives and the Home Office were said to be working together to amplify the message that flying drones near airports was illegal.

Gatwick has offered a £50,000 reward, through Crimestoppers and another £10,000 has been put up by the charity’s chairman, Lord Ashcroft, for the arrest of those responsible for the chaos.

On Sunday, Sussex Police said it was a “possibility” there might never have been a drone despite the massive disruption in the run-up to Christmas.

Following a ministerial briefing on the latest situation at the airport chaired by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling a Government source said police accepted there had been “poor communications”.

Mr Grayling updated ministers on a meeting he held on Friday with airport chief executives to discuss measures they were putting in place to prevent copycat incidents.

It is understood Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington pressed for the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to update their rapid deployment protocol for signing-off requests for military assistance.