How an airport’s rogue drone incident led to a U.K. couple receiving $250K

In December 2018, just days before Christmas, several drones were spotted flying close to the U.K.’s Gatwick Airport, the busiest single-runway hub in the world.

Well aware of the dangers posed by rogue drones in bustling airspace, the airport operator acted swiftly, suspending all departures and diverting incoming flights to other airports in the region.

Repeated sightings of the drones caused intermittent disruption across three days, causing the runway to stay shut for a total of 33 hours.  The chaos at the airport in Sussex, southern England, led to around 1,000 flights being canceled, ruining the travel plans of 120,000 passengers. Some put the total cost of the incident at a colossal $62 million.

Police were under pressure to find those behind the illegal drone flights, and within days 12 armed officers swooped on the home of Paul and Elaine Gait, who live close to the airport. The Gaits were questioned for three days, during which time several national newspapers delved into their private lives while revealing their names and publishing their photos, with one running the headline, “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?”

But the couple did not own any drones, and had been working when the sightings were reported.

After two nights in police custody, Paul and Elaine were released without charge. Speaking to reporters afterward, they said the experience had left them feeling “deeply distressed” and “completely violated,” prompting them to seek medical help.

Following the pair’s decision to sue Sussex police for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment, an out-of-court settlement was announced over the weekend, the BBC reports.

Sussex police apologized for what the Gaits went through and has agreed to pay them a total of 200,000 British pounds (about $250,000) in compensation and legal fees.

The couple’s legal team said in a statement: “We are delighted to have finally received vindication, it has been a very long fight for justice. It has taken lengthy legal proceedings to obtain resolution from the police and to finally have closure on this distressing time.”

Responding to the outcome, Sussex Police Assistant chief constable David Miller said he was “deeply sorry” for the “unpleasantness” of the experienced suffered by the pair, and acknowledged it must have been “traumatic.”

Miller added: “Unfortunately, when the police carry out their functions on behalf of the public, sometimes innocent people are arrested as part of necessary police investigations in the public interest. However, we recognize that things could have been done differently and, as a result, Sussex Police have agreed to pay you compensation and legal costs.”

The assistant chief constable described the drone incident, for which no one has ever been charged, as “a serious and deliberate criminal act designed to endanger airport operations and the safety of the traveling public. A drone strike can cause significant damage to an aircraft in flight and it is important to emphasize that public safety was always at the forefront of our response.”

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