A bank holiday Monday to remember – for all the wrong reasons

The Man Who Pays His Way: Airlines are responsible for caring for passengers

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Saturday 02 September 2023 18:12 BST
Waiting game: passengers at Dublin airport waiting for UK flights on Monday 28 August 2023
Waiting game: passengers at Dublin airport waiting for UK flights on Monday 28 August 2023 (Matt Carter)

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

As an indication that hundreds of thousands of travellers were about to have their day – or week – ruined, the message looked innocuous.

“We are currently experiencing a technical issue and have applied traffic flow restrictions to maintain safety,” read the announcement from Nats just after noon on bank holiday Monday, 28 August.

As the national air-traffic control service explained: “Engineers are working to find and fix the fault. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.”

Nothing to see, you might conclude: perhaps just some mild inconvenience. But the message heralded the imminent cancellation of more than 2,000 flights, wrecking the plans of 300,000 airline passengers.

“The reason for the disruption was precisely because we are absolutely wanting to guarantee everybody’s safety,” I was told the following day by Martin Rolfe, chief executive of Nats.

He revealed for the first time that the fault was initially identified at 8.30am on Monday – almost three hours before the automatic system went offline, leaving controllers to handle aircraft manually.

The system is designed for caution when confronted with a flight plan written in the wrong format. When presented with anomalous data, the organisation’s complex IT operation duly defaulted to fail-safe mode.

Mr Rolfe said: “Our systems, both primary and the back-ups, responded 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.”

Surely the Nats system should automatically have identified the anomaly and rejected the plan, saying “try again”? Yet instead, the flight plan was ingested and set in train a shutdown of the entire automated system, reducing the number of flights that could be handle by a factor of 10.

As the broadcaster William Crawley put it on BBC Radio Ulster: “This is a bit like sticking your card into an ATM machine and putting in the wrong pass code – and instead of spitting out your card it shuts down all the banks in the country.”

Aviation is extremely susceptible to a domino effect, especially at busy airports. And none is busier than London Heathrow and Gatwick, the two big UK airports – whose runways are, at the best of times, effectively full. Disruption quickly rippled out across Europe and beyond.

Flights were grounded in their hundreds. Stranded holidaymakers spent the night on airport floors. And the chances of making it home before the boss or teacher noticed you were absent largely depended on your credit-card limit.

If your account was able to withstand a last-minute, painfully expensive flight via some random city, you could start to extricate yourself from the problem. But people lacking the wherewithal – or who simply could not face racking up a huge bill with no way of knowing when the recompense might arrive – were left to sit and stew.

They could do nothing more than hope that eventually the airline would provide the hotel to which they were entitled as well as finding for a flight home rather than “pay and reclaim” – the practice adopted by airlines when solving so many sudden problems all at once overwhelms their resources.

“We are concerned that consumers could experience significant harm unless airlines meet their obligations” – so wrote the Civil Aviation Authority and Competition and Markets Authority in a joint letter to UK airlines.

The two bodies explicitly called upon the airlines “to quickly put in place mechanisms” to provide for passengers “who may be unable to:

  • investigate or book alternative routes
  • self-fund the purchase of flight tickets and accommodation
  • or to afford to wait for reimbursement”.

The joint letter was not delivered to the airlines this week, this summer or even this year. It was sent out in July 2022 – and, it seems, promptly ignored.

The airlines believe European air passengers’ rights regulations place absurd obligations upon them. But if they choose to operate, they have to obey the rules. And the authorities must enforce them.

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