Passengers and airlines left furious as London airspace closes after computer error

Failure involving flight data systems reduced capacity of the system in the London airspace area to almost zero

Simon Calder
Friday 12 December 2014 20:55

With tens of thousands of airline passengers in the wrong places, and aviation disruption set to continue into the weekend, the air-traffic control firm Nats faces fury from airlines, passengers and the Transport Secretary about another failure of the world’s most complex air navigation system.

A failure involving flight data systems at mid-afternoon yesterday reduced the capacity of the system in the London airspace area – covering much of the south of Britain – to almost zero, at what is normally the busiest time of the year.

It came barely a year after a software failure at Nats HQ led to hundreds of delays and cancellations. Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, called the failure “simply unacceptable”. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Nats was apologising for “any inconvenience caused”.

On the ground there was mayhem. The failure happened at the worst possible time – as returning business travellers, short-break weekenders and long-haul adventurers were looking forward to reaching their destination. For around 2,000 of them, that turned out to be in an unexpected country, as flights were diverted.

A screengrab from Flightradar24 showing all London air traffic at 4.22pm

British Airways, which operates more than half the flights at Heathrow, was worst affected. Incoming flights were delayed and diverted, leading to more than 40 cancellations to and from Europe’s busiest airport. Most were short-haul European and domestic services.

At Gatwick, the main hub for easyJet, delays rapidly built up and led to cancellations. Incoming flights from the Canaries were diverted to Bordeaux and to Paris, while passengers from Innsbruck ended up in Brussels. The unfortunate passengers aboard the mid-afternoon BA flight from Jersey to Gatwick found themselves further away than where they had started, when the flight was diverted to Paris.

In a statement, BA said: “We are working hard to look after our customers who have been affected. While the system is slowly recovering, we anticipate the knock-on effects to take some time to resolve.” The airline said it hoped to operate all long-haul services, and added: “We have booked a large number of hotel rooms to accommodate those who have been disrupted.”

It offered passengers due to travel from Heathrow, Gatwick or London City the chance to rebook flights to a later date or claim a full refund.

Undated handout photo issued by Nats of the National Air Traffic Control Centre at Swanwick in Hampshire

Nats is based at Swanwick, Hampshire, a state-of-the-art facility that also handles military airspace. In many ways it is seen as one of the leading air navigation service providers because of its ability to handle the world’s most complex airspace – but also because of its forward-looking attitude in an industry characterised by institutional foot dragging. But its managers will have an uncomfortable weekend as they assess the causes of the failure and work out what they will say to the Transport Secretary on Monday morning.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of travellers face a stressful weekend, while airlines bemoan another dose of chaos that is beyond their control but which lands them with expensive responsibilities.

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