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What happened with air traffic today? Simon Calder explains

What happened with air traffic today? Simon Calder explains

It’s the £80m question: Why are airlines facing enormous financial losses while their passengers endure extreme distress?

The last week of August is a time of high demand for air travel, especially from returning holidaymakers. Because of the UK’s limited airport infrastructure, especially in southeast England, there is precious little slack in the system: Heathrow and Gatwick are, respectively, the busiest two-runway and single-runway airports in the world.

So the UK’s normally well-regarded air traffic control (ATC) system needed to be working perfectly on bank holiday Monday.

At 11.24am on Monday I began to get reports from airlines of an “ATC failure affecting entire UK airspace”. Within 15 minutes I asked Nats, the national air-traffic service, what was happening.

Just before noon, the company told me: “We are currently experiencing a technical issue and have applied traffic flow restrictions to maintain safety. Engineers are working to find and the fix the fault.

“We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.”

That last line raises the bar for official understatement. The entire UK aviation industry could see the only possible consequence was severe disruption. And so it proved, with almost 1,600 UK-touching flights cancelled on Monday and an estimated quarter-million passengers waking on Tuesday somewhere they did not want or expect to be.

On Monday evening I asked Nats a dozen questions, which I shall share with you.

  • Nature of issue?
  • The cause?
  • Time it occurred?
  • Time when impact began on flights?
  • Time it was fixed?
  • Time normal service resumed?
  • Whether priority was given to long-haul flights?
  • NATS’ assessment on number of flights affected/cancelled/diverted?
  • Any assurance that it will not happen again?
  • What lessons NATS has learnt from the event?
  • Whether airlines can expect any recompense from Nats?
  • Whether individual passengers can expect any recompense from Nats?

The organisation replied at lunchtime on Tuesday, declining to answer those questions: a thorough investigation is under way to understand the root cause of what happened, and the world will have to wait until that is known.

Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Europe’s biggest budget airline, Ryanair, had no more luck than me. In a video message, he said: “It’s not acceptable that UK Nats simply allow their computer systems to be taken down, and…

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