More travel chaos after 300,000 hit by cancellations – and French error blamed for air traffic mayhem

Inquiry launched into whether faulty flight plan triggered outage – as disruption set to continue

Simon Calder,Andy Gregory
Wednesday 30 August 2023 08:46 BST
'It will take a long time’ for flights to return to normal, says Nats chief

Passengers hit by the air traffic control meltdown face being stranded abroad for up to a week, as it emerged that an incorrectly filed flight plan by a French airline may have triggered the outage.

Around 300,000 airline passengers have now been hit by flight cancellations since the hours-long failure of the Nats system on bank holiday Monday. The knock-on effect is set to last for several more days, as under-pressure airlines battle the backlog in a week where millions are already returning to the UK from their summer holidays.

Several sources say the issue may have been caused when a French airline filed a dodgy flight plan that made no digital sense. Instead of the error being rejected, it prompted a shutdown of the entire Nats system – raising questions over how one clerical error could cause such mayhem.

Nats chief executive Martin Rolfe appeared to confirm the inputting error late on Tuesday, saying in a statement: “Initial investigations into the problem show it relates to some of the flight data we received.”

Downing Street has launched an independent review into the incident, which caused more than a quarter of flights at UK airports to be cancelled on Monday.

It came as:

  • Transport secretary Mark Harper held an emergency meeting with airlines after calling the incident the “worst of its kind” in a decade
  • No 10 warned airlines they must do everything to “get customers back to where they should be”
  • easyJet is to operate five repatriation flights to Gatwick over the next three days
  • Flight data showed around 300 flights affecting around 50,000 passengers were cancelled at the UK’s six busiest airports on Tuesday
  • Many others were significantly delayed with a BA flight from Heathrow to Chennai in India departing 26 hours late
  • It was estimated the shutdown could cost the UK aviation industry around £80m

Asked if officials would speak to counterparts across the English Channel, Mr Sunak’s spokesperson said: “You would expect them to be speaking regularly [with other countries] but I’m not aware of any specific conversations with French counterparts.”

Simon will be on hand from 9-10am BST, on Wednesday 30 August to answer all your questions in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ event here. From advice on your rights to what to do if your flight is cancelled, he will be answering live in the comments section and you can submit your questions in advance by clicking here.

A traveller waits for flight information at Heathrow on Tuesday

He added that experts had confirmed it was a “technical issue, not a cybersecurity incident”.

In his statement, Mr Rolfe said Nats’ systems, both primary and the back-ups, responded to the incorrect flight data by suspending automatic processing “to ensure that no incorrect safety-related information could be presented to an air traffic controller or impact the rest of the air traffic system”.

He said it was working with the Civil Aviation Authority to provide a report on what went wrong to Mr Harper on Monday.

It comes as easyJet said on Tuesday that it would run five repatriation flights to Gatwick – from Palma and Faro on Wednesday, from Tenerife and Enfidha on Thursday and Rhodes on Friday.

A spokesperson said: “We are also operating larger aircraft on key routes including Faro, Ibiza, Dalaman and Tenerife to provide some additional 700 seats this week. Although this situation was outside of our control, we are sorry for the difficulty this has caused for our customers and remain focused on doing all possible to assist and repatriate them. Customers will be moved onto repatriation flights and notified directly.”

Some passengers stranded overseas as a result of the shutdown told The Independent they had only been offered alternative flights for a week’s time, with one couple on a flight that does not depart Portugal until next Monday.

Martin Andrew Lavelle said they had been due to fly from Faro to Belfast at 8:10pm on Monday before their flight was repeatedly delayed and eventually cancelled.

They then received an email from easyJet saying the airline would provide them with accommodation, and had changed their flight to a plane from Faro to Manchester seven days after their original flight – with an overnight stay in Manchester before flying to Belfast the next morning.

“However we have not received any more emails from easyJet confirming our accommodation so as of now we are stuck in the airport with not a leg to stand on,” Mr Lavelle said.

Lucy Chang, 35, who is six months pregnant, has been left stranded in Rhodes, with all of easyJet’s flights from the Greek island sold out for the next nine days. She has only managed to get a new flight booked for Thursday after shelling out around £1,500 on hotels and new flight bookings.

Her husband Iain Hawthorn, 37, said he and Ms Chang, who has missed two appointments to check on her bay, had been due to fly to Gatwick at 8pm on Monday. But 90 minutes after their departure time, they were finally notified that their flight had been cancelled.

Iain Hawthorn and Lucy Chang pictured ‘during happier times’ on a visit to Symi, near Rhodes

With no option to book a hotel in the easyJet app, they have had to arrange their own accommodation, with all of the 29 flights from Rhodes displayed on the app between now and next Thursday – 10 days after their planned departure – having sold out.

No 10 said airlines should be “proactively” communicating with passengers about their rights and taking “every possible step” to help them. The spokesperson said passengers had rights with regards to accommodation and alternative flights and Mr Harper would be making sure airlines “honour those obligations”.

Confirming a probe into the incident, Mr Harper told GB News: “This was a technical fault. And what will happen now with an incident of this magnitude is there will be an independent review.”

Around 300 flights were cancelled on Tuesday as the disruption continued

He added: “It’s nearly a decade since there was a significant issue like this. We want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, because of all the disruption that’s been caused to passengers across the country.”

According to the latest data, at least 281 flights were cancelled on Tuesday. This consisted of 75 at Gatwick, 74 at Heathrow, 63 at Manchester, 28 at Stansted, 23 at Luton and 18 at Edinburgh.

Most are short-haul departures from Heathrow, including Athens, Ibiza and Pisa. But transatlantic flights are also affected, with the Heathrow-Nashville and Gatwick-Tampa flights cancelled. Many other flights were significantly delayed.

As delays and cancellations continued, Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary said it had been a “very difficult day” after they had to cancel 250 flights, affecting 40,000 passengers because of long delays to flight plans and crew running out of hours.

He added: “It’s not acceptable that UK Nats simply allow their computer systems to be taken down, and everybody’s flights get cancelled or delayed.”

Delays and cancellations at Gatwick on Tuesday

One family who said they spent £12,000 on a holiday said they had been “treated like muck” by their airline.

Katrina Harrison and her family – including one-year-old twin grandchildren – spent the night at Leeds Bradford airport after their flight to Antalya, Turkey, was cancelled on Monday afternoon.

Ms Harrison, from Stockton-on-Tees, said: “There were no hotels to stay in, we couldn’t get the car out of the car park.

“We haven’t slept, we tried to sleep on the floor but couldn’t. Luckily the children could sleep in the pram.

Passengers have been forced to stay overnight at airports, including Gatwick

“The holiday was supposed to be a family celebration of a few things. We’ve spent £12,000 on it and we’ve been treated like muck.”

Rafal Batko and his family, from Sheffield, also spent the night at Leeds Bradford airport after their flight to Krakow was cancelled.

Mr Batko, who is flying out for his mother and father-in-law’s wedding anniversary party, said: “We’ve been here for 17 hours. We tried to get into a hotel but there was no space because everyone was in the same position.

“It’s stressful but fingers crossed we’ll get on one today [Tuesday]. If not we’ll have to go home, we are tired and everything is too expensive to buy.”

Nats suffered what it described as a “technical issue” preventing it from automatically processing flight plans. This resulted in flights to and from UK airports being restricted while the plans were checked manually.

It said at 3.15pm on Monday the problem was resolved, but disruption continued into Tuesday as many aircraft and crews were out of position.

The aviation analytics firm Cirium reported that 790 flights due to depart from UK airports were cancelled on Monday, while 785 arrivals were axed. The figures represent 27 per cent of all operations. Heathrow saw the highest number of cancellations, followed by Gatwick and Manchester.

During times of travel chaos, The Independent’s travel correspondant Simon Calder is here to provide unparalleled advice to holidaymakers. You can sign up to Simon’s newsletter by clicking here. Subscribers to Independent Premium can also receive a weekly Ask Me Anything email from Simon which sees him answer your burning travel questions. You can sign up to Independent Premium by clicking here.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in