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Air-traffic control bank holiday chaos: On-call engineer took 90 minutes to reach HQ and reboot computer

Simon Calder’s Travel

The engineer who was rostered to oversee the UK’s air-traffic control system on the August bank holiday last year was at home when both the main and back-up computers failed.

A report has revealed it took 90 minutes for the staff member to reach work and start to fix the failed Nats flight system.

More than 700,000 passengers were hit by the failure of the UK’s air-traffic control system on one of the busiest days of the decade.

At 8.32am on Monday 28 August, the UK’s air-traffic control computer system, and its back-up, failed for several hours.

While no aircraft were ever in danger, the dual failure cut the capacity of UK airspace by 92.5 per cent: from a maximum of 800 flights per hour to just 60.

Once the engineer arrived and rebooted the system, the problem was eventually solved seven hours after it began.

The outage caused the cancellation of 1,600 flights on the day. Four hundred more followed over the next couple of days, due to planes and pilots being stranded out of position by the air-traffic control shutdown.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) set up an independent review, which has now published its interim report.

The panel says that 300,000 people had their flights cancelled, while a further 400,000 incurred delays.

“This had considerable financial and emotional consequences for them,” the report says.

The failure collectively cost airlines tens of millions of pounds. Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “This report contains damning evidence that Nats’ basic resilience planning and procedures were wholly inadequate and fell well below the standard that should be expected for national infrastructure of this importance.”

The cause of the shutdown was a flight plan for a flight by French Bee from Los Angeles to Paris Orly, which contained duplicate “waypoints”: DVL, the code for both Devil’s Lake in North Dakota and Deauville in northern France.

The report sets out the sequence of events that shut the system down within 20 seconds:

  • The Nats system “identified a flight whose exit point from UK airspace, referring back to the original flight plan, is considerably earlier than its entry point.”
  • “Recognising this as being not credible, a critical exception error was generated.”
  • The system, as it is designed to do, “placed itself into maintenance mode to prevent the transfer of apparently…

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