Cancellation of hundreds of flights to and from British airports leads to knock-on effect
Thousands of British travellers were facing possible disruption today as aviation officials faced criticism for allowing a technical glitch to wreak havoc with flights across Europe.
A communications fault at the partly-privatised National Air Traffic Service on Saturday led to hundreds of flights being grounded or held back by hours. Officials said the problem was fixed at 7.30pm on Saturday night but delays would continue throughout the weekend as airports worked through the backlog.
There were scenes of anger, frustration and tearful despair at Britain’s main airports as passengers faced a wave of cancellations on departure boards.
All of the UK’s main aviation hubs were affected. At Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, there were 228 cancellations of both arrivals and departures by Saturday evening. Other flights faced delays of up to two hours.
Budget airline Ryanair said more than 300 of its flights had been affected. At the height of the problem it called on the Civil Aviation Authority to intervene and prevent further disruption. It said the regulator had failed by not ensuring Nats had adequate back-up protocols.
“While we acknowledge problems can occur, where’s the contingency?” it said in a statement. “It’s simply not good enough and the CAA needs to act now.”
Last night Nats said it regretted the disruption but stressed it had managed to operate at 88% of normal capacity without compromising passenger safety.
“To be clear, this is a very complex and sophisticated system with more than a million lines of software,” a spokesman said. “This is not simply internal telephones, it is the system controllers use to speak to other [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.”
The problem occurred when Nats switched from night to day operations at its £623m control centre in Swanwick, Hampshire, early on Saturday. Because traffic controllers were unable to communicate properly with each other, they could not operate at normal capacity, leading to major disruption at Heathrow and other airports including Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, Southampton, London City, Cardiff, Bristol, Bournemouth, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin.
The CAA said it had been working with Nats to ensure the situation was swiftly resolved. It said passengers were entitled to assistance from airlines if they had been delayed for several hours.
Chris Yates, an aviation expert, said thousands of passengers would continue to be affected because Swanwick controls all aircraft over southern England, one of Europe’s busiest corridors for air traffic.
He said: “When the system kicks back in and starts working there will be a backlog of flights. For those waiting to fly out, it’s going to be a case of sitting around the airport terminal until things get back to normal.”
Passenger Daisy McAndrew said she had been caught in the “unholy mess” at Gatwick as she tried to fly to Barcelona for work. “As ever, staff have been fantastic but they know nothing other than the fact it is going to be a very, very long delay – very frustrating,” she told Sky News.