Air traffic control glitch grounds flights over weekend
December 9th, 2013 by elisa

Hundreds of thousands of passengers across the world suffered flight cancellations and delays after a technical glitch caused the UK’s traffic control system to break down over the weekend.

The problems started on Saturday morning when night shift air traffic controllers handed over to the day shift at the NATS Area Control Centre at Swanwick, Hampshire. The nighttime system failed to switch to the daytime system, preventing additional control positions from operating.

“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 agencies both in the UK and Europe and is the biggest system of its kind in Europe,” said NATS.

“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.”

NATS managed to get 90% of its normal operation running by 7.30pm on Saturday, and has apologised for the problems. 

The Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates air traffic control, is in contact with NATS to discuss whether airlines should be compensated for the flight delays. They are also reviewing the incident to prevent it from happening again.

“As this was an operational issue for NATS, they will be leading on looking into the exact circumstances of what happened over the weekend and the lessons that can be learned. We will of course provide support to that process,” said a CAA spokesman.

Airlines pay a fee to NATS for the services, but it is 49% owned by a consortium of UK-based airlines, which effectively means they would be seeking partial compensation from themselves. The UK government owns 51% of the business.

Passengers are unable to claim compensation from the airlines as under European regulations, the technical problems are deemed outside of the airlines’ control. However, airlines are required to assist passengers during disruption regardless of the reason; this includes providing food, drink, and accommodation if passengers are delayed overnight.

British Airways said it was too early to say if it would seek compensation, and Ryanair said it was not ruling anything out.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesperson said a decision regarding the compensation situation could be reached later today or tomorrow.

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