drone airport
© Reuters / Toby Melville
A British Airways passenger jet at Gatwick airport, UK (file photo)
Tens of thousands of plane passengers face a second day of chaos with flights in and out of Gatwick cancelled after two drones were spotted flying over the airfield.

As of 9.45am on Thursday the runway remained closed and all flights were suspended after a Wednesday night of total mayhem sparked by the major security alert.

Twenty police units from two different forces are desperately searching for the suspects who have been flying drones over the airfield since about 9pm on Thursday.

Officers believe it is a "a deliberate act to disrupt the airport" but said "there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror related".

Gatwick Airport has said all flights will be disrupted for the rest of the day with 110,000 people due to take off or land at the airport on 760 flights.

"Unfortunately, there are significant delays and cancellations to all flights today," said a statement from the airport.

The runway had briefly reopened just after 3am but was closed again after more drone sightings.

Gatwick's chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe, said drones had been spotted over the aircraft as late as 7am on Thursday.

Gatwick Airport
© Jeremy Selwyn
Passengers stranded at Gatwick Airport today
Speaking to BBC Radio 4, he blasted the "irresponsible" act and said up to 10,000 people had been affected by the closure, including 2,000 whose flights had been unable to take off.

He said there were two drones which had been seen flying "over the perimeter fence and into where the runway operates from".

Mr Woodroofe said: "They disappeared and reappeared over the night period from 9pm until 3am, at which point we reopened the runway."

He said the situation was being reviewed and no planes would fly until it was confirmed the drones were gone.

Mr Woodroofe added the drones had sparked "very significant disruption for passengers" but that police did not want to shoot them down because of the risk from stray bullets.

He told Today: "Last night there were 10,000 people disrupted.

"There were 6,000 people flying in from around the world to Gatwick who were diverted to alternative airports as we closed, there were 2,000 people who didn't take off from their origin airport and there are a further 2,000 people here who couldn't fly to their destination because the airport closed."

He added that 20 police units from two forces were hunting for the pilot, saying: "The police are looking for the operator and that is the way to disable to drone.

"We also have the helicopter up in the air but the police advice us that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets."

Gatwick has warned passengers the disruption will continue and told those travelling to or from the airport to check their flight's status as there was a huge backlog of flights.

It comes after frustrated customers were held on the runway for hours, with many flights even been diverted to other airports amid the chaos.

Sussex Police confirmed officers were at the scene and responding to reports of a drone sighting at the airport. A police helicopter was reportedly searching for the remote-controlled airborne vehicles.

In its latest statement, Gatwick said the airport's runway was reopened shortly after 3am but that delays will continue into Thursday.

"Our focus is now on working, with the airport community, to catch up on the flight schedule. We advise everyone flying from Gatwick, or collecting someone from the airport, Thursday 20th December, to check the status of their flight," it said.

Richard Asquith was travelling from Glasgow on a plane which circled around Gatwick for 20 minutes before it had to divert to Stansted because it was running out of fuel.

However, Mr Asquith said "too many planes had rerouted" to Stansted amid the disruption at Gatwick so the plane was forced to touch down at Heathrow Airport instead.

Flight Alerts on Twitter suggested at around 9.45pm that all inboard aircraft to Gatwick are currently holding and no flights are departing. "Police helicopter is searching the area around London Gatwick Airport," it added.

John Belo, another passenger affected by the disruption, told the Standard: "Around 30 minutes ago the captain said the runway was closed for both departures and landings but didn't know why.

Gatwick had said since the initial reports of two drones flying over the airfield there has been several more. It apologised to customers for the severe delays.

Any major problem at Gatwick causes a ripple effect throughout Britain and continental Europe, particularly during a holiday period when the air traffic control system is under strain.

It is a busy airport 27 miles (43 kilometres) south of London, hosting a variety of short- and long-haul flights and serving as a major hub for the budget carrier easyJet.

Gatwick normally operates throughout the night but the number of flights is restricted because of noise limitations. The airport website said it usually handles 18 to 20 flights overnight during the winter months.

There have been occasional reports of drones nearly hitting commercial airliners in the London area in recent years. Strong sales of small consumer drones have led to repeated warnings about a possible threat to scheduled flights.