Alleged sightings over the February bank holiday weekend cost the industry well over €1m and led to huge disruption for passengers. What can be done to clip their wings and prevent it happening again?
So why are people at Dublin Airport scanning the sky a little more anxiously than usual these days?
Because illegal drone activity has been causing havoc for both passengers and authorities.
Matters came to a head over the February bank holiday weekend, when alleged sightings of these devices caused flights to be delayed or diverted on three days out of four. Since then, government ministers, airline companies and the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) have been arguing over who is responsible for putting a stop to this.
“Do we want to get to St Patrick’s weekend and have the same thing happen again?” Fine Gael TD Colm Brophy asked on Newstalk radio last Tuesday.
“Do we want to end up as a laughing stock, a country that is literally closed down overnight by a couple of head-the-balls with a drone? That is just not acceptable.”
What exactly happened last weekend?
On Friday, Saturday and Monday, people reported seeing drones flying around Dublin Airport territory.
While the DAA has a drone detection system, it can’t actually take them down and shooting at them is considered far too dangerous.
A subsequent investigation has found that Friday’s sighting was a false alarm, but the others were genuine.
Either way, these scares forced delays to the DAA’s schedule of between 20 and 40 minutes. While this might not sound like much, modern aircraft movements are so precise that even a short pause can cause major disruption.
Several flights due to depart remained on the ground, others trying to land were placed in holding patterns and the really unlucky ones had to divert to Shannon, Belfast or Manchester. Apart from the inconvenience to passengers, it’s estimated that all this cost the industry well over €1m.
Why so much panic over something as small as a drone?
Because as the Easter Rising leader James Connolly liked to say, a pin can still pierce the heart of a giant.
Even with their arms extended, most drones are no bigger than a laptop computer.
As former Air Corps Lieutenant Kevin Byrne explained on RTÉ radio last Tuesday, however, an airplane could actually ingest one and crash as a result.
“You will probably lose the engine,” Byrne said. “Because unlike a bird, this thing is made of metal and plastic. It will cause [a] catastrophic failure.”
What does the law say about this activity?
In 2015, Ireland became one of the first countries to legislate for drone use. They are not allowed to be flown higher than 120 metres or more than 300 metres away from their operators.
Crucially, it’s also strictly forbidden to use them within 5km of an airfield.
Whoever was responsible for last weekend’s antics at Dublin Airport, the repeated drone sightings suggest a pattern of behaviour.
It would be relatively easy for someone to go to the airport’s perimeter, set their drone’s flight path and then drive away.
They are still being extremely reckless, since this offence can be punished by a fine of up to €500,000 or seven years in prison.
“That’s certainly the best way of stopping it,” Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said this week, “(showing) people they are taking a huge risk with their own liberty.”
Presumably this isn’t just an Irish problem?
No, rogue drones have been disrupting air travel all over the world in recent years. The most notorious episode took place at London’s Gatwick Airport shortly before Christmas in 2018. A total of 170 drone sightings forced the airport to close for 33 hours, with more than 1,000 flights cancelled and over 140,000 passengers affected.
Despite a police operation that lasted 18 months, the culprits were never found and some aviation investigators believe the whole affair was a case of mass delusion. British drone flyers reportedly created a new joke, saying: “The Gatwick drone? There’s more evidence for the Loch Ness Monster.”
But did the Gatwick scare force security experts to take the issue more seriously?
Yes. Since then, the British government has created a drone countermeasure system that is operated by the Metropolitan Police in London. This technology can take control of a drone, jam its signal or force it to the ground if necessary.
Unfortunately, the EU is still playing catch-up. In 2021, its Aviation Safety Agency published guidelines for hundreds of European airports to tackle unauthorised drone use in co-operation with law enforcement agencies.
The target date, however, is the final quarter of 2025 – which some airlines and politicians have criticised as just not fast enough.
“We need to look at getting these devices as a matter of urgency,” Senator Gerard Craughwell, from the Oireachtas Transport Committee, told TheJournal.ie last Wednesday. “This is an emergency situation.”
So who exactly is in charge of clipping these drones’ wings?
That’s still not clear. On Tuesday evening, Ryan and Junior Transport Minister Jack Chambers organised a meeting to discuss the issue with representatives from the DAA, the Irish Aviation Authority, the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána.
Afterwards, Ryan said he would ask Defence Minister Micheál Martin to get involved too, saying the war in Ukraine is accelerating drone technology and it will be “interesting” to see what develops.
Will this show of unity calm everybody down?
Not until it’s accompanied by concrete measures.
Ryanair remains extremely critical of Ryan for not taking immediate action last weekend and has tweeted a photograph of him apparently asleep in Dáil Éireann. Colm Brophy says the DAA should be made liable for any costs caused by drone disruption.
The DAA’s new chief executive Kenny Jacobs argues that this problem goes way beyond Dublin Airport.
What we need, he told RTÉ radio last Wednesday, is a State-wide defence system and even more draconian punishment for criminal drone flyers up to jailing them for life.
“It’s not a matter for us to sort out,” Jacobs insisted. “Next weekend this could happen at Shannon Airport. It could also happen over the Aviva Stadium while Ireland are playing France.”Do you have a Dublin story?
If so you can get in touch here
Finally, hasn’t Dublin Airport been going through enough turbulence already?
Yes. The DAA is under pressure to show it has learned lessons from last spring’s chaos, which included massive queues, thousands of missing bags and 1,400 people missing flights over one nightmarish Sunday in May.
It is deeply unhappy over a decision by the Commission for Aviation Regulation not to allow for the recruitment of 240 extra security staff by 2026, which Kenny Jacobs has dubbed “unwise and inexplicable”.
Last month the DAA issued an apology to local residents for noise from its new North Runway, promising that a revised flight route starting on February 23 will resolve the situation.
In other words, Dublin Airport has got plenty of problems on the ground. The last thing it needs is a new enemy in the sky.