UK’s air traffic control system has suffered a ‘huge network failure’ on one of the busiest days of the year – causing chaos for travellers that could last days.
Britain’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) said it is experiencing ‘technical issues’ that had forced controllers to reduce the rate flights are able to land and take off.
This has led to scores of flights being delayed both in and out of the UK. One Briton returning from Lanzarote said she had been told to expect a wait of at least 10 hours.
Travel expert Simon Calder said the system outage would cause ‘misery’ for passengers – with contagion likely spreading across Europe.
He said travellers should ‘assume’ their flight was operating normally and predicted airlines would be forced to pay out millions in compensation.
NATS did not provide any further information about what caused it or how long it would take for UK airspace to return to normal.
Today is one of the busiest days for air travel of the year, making the ‘huge network failure’ all the more disruptive. This is a map showing flights currently in the air across Europe
Mr Calder told Sky News: ‘There is very little slack in the system. It’s going to be miserable. Meanwhile there and hundreds of planes up in the sky heading to the UK.
‘What’s going to happen to those aircraft, will some of them get down if they are in the vicinity of the airfield.
‘Otherwise you will see planes held on the ground in places like Amsterdam or otherwise being diverted if they’re on a longer flight. That would typically be to a continental airport or an Irish airport.’
Mr Calder said the shutdown would not cause safety issues because the system was ‘designed to cope’ with a shutdown and aircraft carried contingency fuel.
But he added: ‘This is of course one of the busiest days of the year. There are hundreds of thousands of people flying into the UK, frankly this is the last thing anyone needs.
‘It will at the very least have caused enough disruption for the system to be in disarray for certainly until the end of the day and possibly for a few further days ahead.’
The travel guru said air traffic controllers at Heathrow – the UK’s busiest airport – be forced to reduce the frequency at which flights are able to land.
He explained: ‘Normally you have flights landing typically every 90 seconds or so. They can switch away from the digital system and become much more analogue, bringing the aircraft in more manually. However, you are not going to be able to do it at the same rate.
‘For Heathrow and Gatwick in particular there is so little slack in the system that it can cause problems. If you’re reducing the flow rate coming in and keeping aircraft on the ground at those airports it will be a very difficult afternoon.’
An aviation expert shares a map showing the area that has been affected by the shutdown
News of the shutdown was leaked out by the Scottish airline Loganair, which shared the news on Twitter.
It tweeted: ‘There has been a network-wide failure of UK air traffic control computer systems this morning.
‘Although we are hopeful of being able to operate most intra-Scotland flights on the basis of local coordination and with a minimum of disruption, north-south and international flights maybe subject to delays.
‘If you are flying with us today, please check our website for the latest information about your flight before setting off for the airport.’
A statement from from Operations Director Juliet Kennedy confirmed that “it will take some time for flights to return to normal.”
Multiple UK airports and airlines were impacted by the issue, including Heathrow where thousands of passengers were left waiting for hours in the terminals while Scottish airline Loganair said there was a “network-wide failure of UK air traffic control computer systems.”
Oseloka Obiora, Chief Technology Officer at RiverSafe, commented: “Downtime in industries such as aviation causes incredible disruption, as we’ve seen by flights being grounded and major delays, so it is vital that organisations have observability to monitor their entire network environment. Having visibility over the condition of networks, infrastructure and applications based on data outputs can ensure that IT teams are able to better identify and resolve issues faster.”
“Through observability, IT teams can monitor the unknowns unknowns, enabling them to be better prepared for unexpected issues that arise within a network, particularly those that are complex or across distributed systems. Effective network visibility through observability can be the difference between hours and days’ worth of delays in the aviation industry.”
Government ministers included a cyber attack as the possibility of the network failure, following a breach by pro-Russian cyber attacks in April on Eurocontrol, the organiser of commercial traffic in the European Union.
Juliet Kennedy, Operations Director for NATS, said: “The issue we had earlier meant that our automatic system which provides controllers with details of every aircraft and its route wasn’t working. Instead, to manage safety, we had to limit the number of flights we could manage.”
“Our absolute priority is safety, and we’ll be investigating very thoroughly what happened” she added.
‘We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.’