Interviewed at Gatwick Airport by the BBC, Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley of Sussex Police denounced the media coverage of the drone incidents suspects released earlier today. Image: BBC

Gatwick travel mess: Suspects released; police say there may not have been genuine drone activity; damaged drone found; airport offers reward

Security • law enforcement • countermeasures

The Gatwick travel disruption mess story is becoming stranger and stranger. Sussex police released without charge the two people detained two days ago [Dec. 21] at their home in Crawley, the town adjacent to the airport, as tabloid newspapers in the United Kingdom published Sunday editions with front-page photographs of the unfortunate couple gleaned from social media.

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley of Sussex Police, interviewed on live television by the BBC Sunday afternoon [Dec. 23], denounced the invasion of privacy of the former suspects and said that publicizing their names and information concerning evidence “frustrated” the investigation:

I’m satisfied that the arrest of those two individuals was lawful and we’ve treated them obviously whilst they’ve been in custody — and we made sure that we are looking after them in terms of that welfare and support going on after they were released from custody. What I will say about the disclosure of personal details and also parts of the investigation in relation to those arrests: We will never, from a policing perspective, disclose that information that has been disclosed through the media and that does cause some frustration in terms of the investigation itself, but more importantly the impact on those two individuals. We will pursue and progress [on] information that is given to us, particularly from members of the public or intelligence or other agencies we get that information from. I can’t stress enough the impact on those two individuals of what has been released and that we would not have chosen in any event to provide that information to anyone and we would not do that in any normal investigation. Secondly, it does frustrate an investigation in terms of that information being released in the public domain and particularly when there are specific parts of that evidence and investigation that we’d rather not be out in the public domain. It does frustrate the effective and thorough investigation and one might say that’s probably hindered us in terms of how quickly we’ve been able to get to a resolution in terms of them being released from custody.

The BBC, which had not communicated the names of the suspects, also reported that a damaged drone found nearby the airport was being examined. Det Ch Supt Tingley was cautious, describing that drone’s connection to the Gatwick sightings as “a working assumption”, but concerning the lack of photographs or video footage of the dozens of drone sightings by eyewitnesses also added: “[There is] always a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place,” a controversial statement considering that it is estimated that over 140,000 passengers were affected by the emergency closures of Gatwick Airport this week, that the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has advised that passengers are not entitled to compensation from the airlines for their wrecked travel plans, and that it appears the airport was ill-equipped to detect and track c-drones entering its airspace.

As the UK government faced calls from the opposition Labour Party for an investigation into the airport closures and Baroness Randerson, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Transport, asked for new and immediate “stringent controls” on drones, professional c-drone operators expressed concern there would be a backlash of hasty and ill-advised restrictions on legitimate professional drone use. The Drone Safe Register (DSR), a network of professional CAA-certified drone pilots, said:

In the commercial sector there is already a large body of regulation that governs the deployment of drones for commercial purposes and it works well. […]

There have never been any problems or incidents reported by commercially approved drone pilots such as those represented by DSR, due to their comprehensive training, qualification, maintenance procedures and natural risk averse nature. Any future action taken to minimise or eradicate the misery caused by airport closures as seen at Gatwick this week, needs to be taken in consultation with the commercial sector and exclude them from further restrictive procedures or legislation. […]

Drone Safe Register request that cool heads prevail in the face of an unprecedented event and that the steps taken to prevent this happening again in the future include all stakeholders, in particularly those operating in the safely regulated commercial sector.

Gatwick Airport offered a reward of £50,000 ($63,000, €56,000) for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the three days of flight disruptions through Crimestoppers, following a £10,000 ($13,000, €11,000) reward previously offered by Lord Ashcroft, chairman of the charity.