LONDON- A fault in the UK NATS air traffic control system (ATC), rectified within four hours, resulted in extensive and enduring disruption.
This disruption encompassed over 2,000 flight cancellations, extensive delays affecting hundreds of thousands of passengers, and airlines potentially facing compensation payouts amounting to millions of dollars.
UK NATS ATC Fault
On a bank holiday Monday, traditionally a significant day for travel, various families departed from UK airports for the last days of the summer break. In contrast, others returned in anticipation of the upcoming school term for the majority of students.
Initial reports of delays at several airports did not generate significant alarm, as such occurrences are relatively common and are typically resolved promptly.
However, a message from Scottish airline Loganair, posted on the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter) shortly before 12:00 BST, indicated a more substantial issue.
Loganair reported a widespread malfunction in the UK air traffic control computer systems. Within thirty minutes, this problem was officially acknowledged by the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS).
NATS issued a statement confirming “technical issues” and implemented air traffic flow restrictions for safety reasons. The statement did not specify the expected duration for engineers to locate and rectify the issue.
It’s important to note that all flights were able to land safely. This situation was not a matter of life and death, but rather one of widespread frustration and financial cost on a scale rarely witnessed in any context.
Some planes that were en route to the UK turned back and landed, while others remained grounded.
What led to this Chaos?
The precise nature of the issue with NATS was not completely disclosed at the time. However, Michele Robson, a former air traffic controller, air traffic supervisor, and safety manager who worked from 1992 to 2016 at the London Area Control Centre in Swanwick, provided the BBC with insider insights into the systems.
Robson explains that the problem in the air traffic planning system problem likely began around 08:30 BST, several hours before Loganair’s tweet.
While a backup system could have functioned normally for approximately four more hours, those working to resolve the issue would have been keenly aware of the time constraints and eventually realized they did not have enough time.
“They decided to go manual. This means the flight planning and ATC assistants manually input the flight data.”
“This is something they do all the time, but there is suddenly a lot more pressure on them,” Michele explains. Transitioning to a manual system would have created a tense situation for the air traffic controllers, although it’s a scenario they are trained for.”
Robson recalls resorting to a manual system only once during her career, stating, “You have to make more phone calls, but it’s not a scene of panic. Whenever people came into our workspace, they always said they were surprised by how quiet it is.”
The awaited good news finally arrived at 15:30 BST when Nats made the announcement: “We have identified and remedied the technical issue affecting our flight planning system this morning.”
Nats stated that it would work closely with airlines and airports to restore operations and offered a sincere apology for the disruption.
Despite the outage lasting less than four hours, it was evident that the ripple effects would linger for days.
On Monday, a total of 799 flights departing from UK airports (27% of all departures) were canceled, along with 786 flights arriving in the UK (27% of all arrivals).
Nats CEO Martin Rolfe characterized the system failure as an “extremely rare occurrence” and expressed confidence that if it were to happen again, it would be resolved “very, very quickly.”
Even though air traffic control returned to normal on Tuesday and Wednesday, an additional 438 flights were canceled. For previously grounded passengers, the frustrating wait persisted even after regular operations resumed, as there was simply not enough capacity on the remaining flights.
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