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Are Drones at Airports the Newest Travel Nightmare?

As if air travel wasn’t already a stressful and hostile experience, a whole new threat emerged in late December: drones at airports. By being flown around the Gatwick Airport, at least one drone caused London’s second-busiest airport to shut down completely on two successive days.

Although authorities searched, they say they couldn’t find who was flying the drone, and couldn’t stop it. They even called out some army units to investigate, to no avail. According to the New York Times, “more than 1,000 flights were canceled or diverted, delaying or canceling the travel of more than 140,000 passengers, including many who spent two nights at the airport.”

Drones at Airports: More Questions than Answers

This has got to be an airlines’ and airports’ nightmare. Drones these days are unregulated, cheap, and easy to fly. Any idiot might decide it would be fun to see what happens when he or she flies one over or near a busy airport. And some of the larger consumer drones could, theoretically, harm planes or carry out threats.

British officials told media that there is no reliable system that could safely and reliably locate and down a flying drone right now, and called that feat “a difficult challenge.” But I suspect that some of the world’s highest tech security teams might now have a new top-priority assignment.

This incident raises some key, unanswered questions: How will airlines cope if this problem becomes widespread, as is all too likely? Will a drone soon bring down an airliner? What will governments—presumably the FAA and its foreign equivalents—do to counter the threat? How will airlines accommodate travelers stranded by drone-based groundings? What will travel insurance cover?

For now I can offer nothing more in the way of guidance but a warning that you may have to cope with yet another delay hassle on your next air trip, if this incident isn’t an isolated one.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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