An incident that might, in normal circumstances, have been regarded as a routine security infringement led to the partial closure of Britain’s second-biggest airport for at least four hours.
Sussex Police were called to Gatwick North Terminal at 9.30 am following what they described as "suspicious actions by a man who discarded an item at the airport". The man was arrested and the terminal evacuated while bomb-disposal specialists were called in.
Detective Superintendent Nick May confirmed that the massacre in the French capital had triggered the closure: "It is too early to say what the item may be. However, given the events in Paris on Friday evening, there is heightened awareness around any such incident and it is best that we treat the matter in all seriousness."
The police reaction is symptomatic of the current hypersensitivity about aviation security. It follows two tragedies within two weeks: the downing of a Metrojet flight in the Sinai desert en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg, with the loss of 224 lives, and Friday’s massacre in Paris.
The North Terminal “landside” area, i.e. before the security search, was evacuated as a precaution, with passengers taken to nearby hotels. Some roads in the immediate vicinity were closed, and passengers arriving on flights were bussed to the South Terminal, where congestion rapidly built up.
Tens of thousands of passengers at Gatwick were delayed. Virgin Atlantic’s flight to Orlando was three hours late, with British Airways services to Tampa in Florida, Cancun in Mexico, Barbados and Mauritius also facing significantly delays.
Passengers will not be entitled to cash compensation for delayed and cancelled flights, because the cause counts as “extraordinary circumstances”. But the closure will cost the airlines hundreds of thousands of pounds in expenditure on customer care. As news of the events in the French capital spread on Friday night, many transatlantic flights were disrupted. One Air France flight from New York to Paris was turned around in mid-air; after an hour on the ground at JFK airport it took off again again for the French capital where it landed safely. American Airlines cancelled a flight from Dallas, while its flight from Chicago ran four hours late. The Brazilian airline TAM delayed its flight from Sao Paulo to Paris by four hours. French domestic flights were up to two hours late.
In the French capital, thousands of tourists scrambled for seats to travel out of a city in lockdown, with attractions from street markets to Disneyland Paris closed after the attacks. Transport operators were offering passengers who were booked to travel to Paris the chance to postpone or switch destinations without the usual penalties.
Eurostar and easyJet warned passengers departing from Paris to allow extra time for tougher security checks.
The Foreign Office advised travellers “to exercise caution in public places and follow the advice of the local authorities”.
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