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Air traffic control ‘glitch’ that hit thousands ‘just a one-off’

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  • by Andrew Robinson
 

THE air-traffic control company hit by a computer glitch which caused widespread disruption to thousands of British travellers has apologised and said: “We don’t expect it to happen again.”

Hundreds of flights were cancelled or delayed on Saturday, with some knock-on effects yesterday, after problems with a telephone system arose at the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) centre in Swanwick, Hampshire, in the early hours.

Thousands of people endured hours of frustration as flights were affected across the country, including the major airports of Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. The problem was resolved at about 7.30pm on Saturday, Nats said, more than 12 hours after first being reported.

The problems in the South had a knock-on effect at airports in the North, including Leeds Bradford Airport and Manchester.

It was feared there could be serious knock-on effects yesterday but other than a handful of cancellations at Heathrow, there were no further problems.

The issue arose when Nats’ s night-time operating system, which combines sectors of airspace for when it is less busy, did not properly switch over to the daytime system, causing a communication problem with the centre’s internal telephones. They stressed that safety was not at risk.

Heathrow was the worst affected, with 228 cancellations on Saturday, representing 15 per cent of its usual daily total of 1,300 flights.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow Airport said yesterday: “Today 
we have 18 cancellations – 11 arrivals and seven departures – and that’s mostly due to crew displacement.

“Apart from that we are pretty much running as normal.”

She explained that crew displacement is when crew are not where they are meant to be,
owing to Saturday’s cancelled and delayed flights.

A Stansted Airport spokesman said they had experienced no problems on Sunday while a Gatwick Airport spokeswoman said yesterday: “We’ve been back to business as usual from this morning.”

Nats said yesterday that all operations were running as normal.

A Nats spokesman said the problem was caused by a “temporary glitch in the software” which he said was the first time it had happened in a decade.

“We don’t expect it to happen again,” he added. “This is the first time it has happened in 10 years, in 22 million flights. We are pretty confident it’s a resilient piece of kit.”

In a statement issued on Saturday, they apologised for the disruption, saying: “The reduction in capacity has had a disproportionate effect on southern England because it is extremely complex and busy airspace and we sincerely regret inconvenience to our airline customers and their passengers.

“To be clear, this is a very complex and sophisticated system with more than a million lines of software.

“This is not simply internal telephones, it is the system that controllers use to speak to other ATC (air traffic control) agencies both in the UK and Europe and is the biggest system of its kind in Europe.

“This has been a major challenge for our engineering team and for the manufacturer, who has worked closely with us to ensure this complex problem was resolved as quickly as possible while maintaining a safe service.”

Airline Ryanair expressed anger at the apparent lack of a contingency plan.

A spokesman said: “While we understand problems can occur, it’s simply not good enough that there was no contingency plan and the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) must do more to ensure there is no repeat, should a similar air traffic control failure occur.”

Comment: Page 10.

 

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