The military has been called in after drones deliberately targeted Gatwick Airport shutting down the runway and disrupting the travel plans of more than 110,000 people.
An emergency Whitehall meeting is being held in response to the escalating crisis at the UK’s second busiest airport.
Efforts to find the drones and whoever is operating them are becoming more and more desperate as flight cancellations continue to soar.
The runway has been closed almost constantly since two drones were spotted being flown inside the West Sussex airport’s perimeter at 9pm on Wednesday.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told reporters: “Sussex Police have requested assistance and support from the armed forces, and we will be deploying the armed forces to give them the help that they need.”
But he declined to say what assistance the military would give.
Some 110,000 people were due to either take off or land at the airport on 760 flights on Thursday. Around 10,000 passengers were affected on Wednesday night.
Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said he is “not in a position to say when it will be safe to reopen the airport”.
Disruption will continue into Friday, which is one of the airport’s busiest days of the year because of the Christmas getaway.
Mr Wingate said: “This is a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run-up to Christmas.”
He added: “We are still receiving drone sightings in and around the Gatwick airfield.”
Earlier this year, new laws came into force which ban all drones from flying within one kilometre of airport boundaries.
Drone users who flout the restriction face an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both.
He told Sky News that night-flight restrictions will be lifted at other airports – probably those which serve London – so that “more planes can get into and out of the country”.
“Apologies for the residents affected, but it’s right and proper that we try and sort people’s Christmases out,” Mr Grayling said.
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald accused the Government of being “too slow to act” on drones and urged ministers to “fast-track the introduction of a regulatory framework”.
Passengers faced severe disruption as flights were unable to leave the tarmac at Gatwick, while many inbound flights were diverted to alternative airports as far away as Amsterdam and Paris.
Lyndsey Clarke, from Southend, said she was on a stationary plane for more than four hours after it was re-routed to Stansted.
The 27-year-old said passengers were having to get taxis back to Gatwick after they were finally allowed off the aircraft.
Luke McComiskie’s plane ended up in Manchester, and he described chaotic scenes as people tried to find their way home after more than three hours stuck on board.
The 20-year-old, from Aldershot, told the Press Association: “We got told there would be some arrangements with coaches for us when we get out the terminal … It was just chaos and they had only two coaches and taxis charging people £600 to get to Gatwick.”