CRISIS REVIEW: Gatwick Airport’s Drone Incident
By Michelle Wang and Shannan Robinson
On 19 December 2018, two drones were reported flying over the Gatwick Airport’s airfield, subsequently leading to the airport’s shutdown. Sussex police received 129 reports of drone sightings that day, with more than 100 of those reports coming from “credible witnesses”, including a pilot, airport workers, and police at the airport. The incident caused the airport to be shut down for 36 hours, with more than 1,000 flights and 140,000 passengers affected by the closure, who were forced to change, delay or cancel their plans. Personnel from the Royal Air Force Regiment were deployed to assist and according to the Guardian, the closure cost the airport £1.4m.
The Gatwick Airport Twitter account published a statement that provided information on the situation, stating that they “have had to suspend flights while [the situation] is being investigated”. Subsequent statements and Tweets provided further updates and iterated their commitment to work together with the relevant authorities to resolve the situation. The airport also alerted passengers arriving by train that there would be no flights until at least 11am the next day.
Gatwick’s Chief Operating Officer, Chris Woodroofe, was quick to attend multiple media interviews and discuss the incident. During the interviews he provided factual information about how the situation unfolded, the steps taken in conjunction with the relevant authorities to resolve the situation, and the potential repercussions for the owner of the drone.
A crisis response from Gatwick Airport.
In a situation like this, coming up with a quick response that clearly defines all the facts and demonstrates sympathy to those affected is the best way to prevent the spread of misinformation as well as to show empathy – which was exactly what the airport did.
No matter what incident may befall your organisation, you should be prepared. Allan Briggs, Chief Executive Officer of Crisis Shield, states
“a quick and robust response will aid a quick recovery, giving your stakeholders confidence in your capability and credibility.”
Thanks to their fast response, Gatwick Airport was able to lead the narrative rather than let the media create their own.
Just one hour after the shutdown, Gatwick Airport released their first statement through Twitter. They outlined known facts and apologised to those affected while iterating their focus on the safety of their passengers.
“Companies are sometimes scared to apologise in the event of a crisis, but just because you’re apologising doesn’t mean you’re taking the blame” explains Briggs. “In this particular case, Gatwick Airport was able empathise with the passenger’s frustrations while reiterating that safety was more important to them than any financial loss they would suffer in the interim.”
Subsequent statements and communications were similar, adding information where appropriate, expressing their sympathies and apologies to those affected, and iterating their focus on the safety and welfare of their passengers and staff as well as their cooperation with the relevant authorities.
They also advised passengers with upcoming travel arrangements and those collecting people from the airport to check the status of their flight, and that they would be posting “regular updates” on their Twitter account.
This follows our suggested crisis response model and Coombs’ Situational Crisis Communication Theory (2014):
Explain the facts (what we know),
Explain what we don’t know
Explain what we’re doing
Explain what the customer can do, e.g. where to get more information or on-going updates.
By having Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe be a spokesperson for the media and attend interviews quickly, the airport was able to control the press’ need for information and use the coverage to get messages to their passengers. Gatwick’s Head of Communications, Heather Griffiths, indicated that there was a debate about whether to coordinate media interviews from the early moments of the crisis unfolding. However, she added that the media appears to “appreciate the fact we made the effort to speak to them early on”, as well as being honest and upfront.
According to the Financial Times, Gatwick Airport and Heathrow Airport have since invested on anti-drone technology, with Gatwick Airport reported to have spent £5m.
The existing 1 kilometre no-fly zone has been widened to 5 kilometres, and new legislation has been introduced that gives police the authority to stop and search those they believe are misusing drones and to access the data stored in the devices.