Air traffic control catastrophe 'caused by incoming data' not cyber-attack as UK counts £80m cost for fiasco

29 August 2023, 20:46 | Updated: 30 August 2023, 06:37

NATS CEO has said that the air traffic chaos on bank holiday Monday was caused by incoming flight data leading to systems suspending automatic processing
NATS CEO has said that the air traffic chaos on bank holiday Monday was caused by incoming flight data leading to systems suspending automatic processing. Picture: LBC/Alamy

By Chay Quinn

Air traffic control failure which led to a spate of flight cancellations was started by flight data received by National Air Traffic Services causing systems to suspend automatic processing.

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NATS chief executive Martin Rolfe added that there are no indications that the failure was caused by a cyber-attack in a statement released on Tuesday.

Analysis of flight data websites by the PA news agency shows at least 281 flights - including departures and arrivals - were cancelled on Tuesday at the UK's six busiest airports.

Mr Rolfe said he wanted to "reassure" people that all Nats systems have been running normally since Monday afternoon to support airline and airport operations.

He said: "Very occasionally technical issues occur that are complex and take longer to resolve.

"In the event of such an issue our systems are designed to isolate the problem and prioritise continued safe air traffic control.

"This is what happened yesterday."

It comes as the Metro reports that the cost to the British economy could hit £80million as a result of the disruption.

Passengers have been stranded after a glitch in the air traffic control system
Some passengers are still stranded after a glitch in the air traffic control system. Picture: Alamy

The air chief added: "We are already working closely with them to provide a preliminary report to the Secretary of State for Transport on Monday.

"The conclusions of this report will be made public."

The disruption, which began on Bank Holiday Monday, was repaired but led to dozens of flights getting cancelled even today.

But there is hope the disruption will start to ease up on Wednesday.

Travel journalist Simon Calder told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: "My count so far is that, I'm afraid, we're now up to a quarter of a million people who have had their flights cancelled in the last 24 hours.

"There's another 200 or so of flights cancelled today on top of the 1,200 yesterday."

Read more: Brit stranded in Portugal for at least a week amid air traffic control chaos faces having to take unpaid leave

Asked when the problem will start to get better, he said: "Things will improve from tomorrow because, I think, by then pretty much all the airlines will have got their pilots and their planes and their cabin crew back where they need to be.

"At the moment, there's just planes strewn all over the place where they weren't expected to be, you've got issues with cabin crew and pilot rest, and that is causing a lot of the problems today.

A raft of flights have been scrapped
A raft of flights have been scrapped. Picture: Alamy

"By cancelling so many flights, and we're up to about 80 on EasyJet, 60 on British Airways, 40 on Ryanair today, the idea is that you get everything back... press the reset button from Wednesday onwards, things can happen."

He added: "It's going to be messy - I daresay probably by next weekend we'll still see a few stragglers coming back. But some people are telling me September 7 for the next ride, that's tosh.

"Under the air passenger rights rules, airlines have to get you to their destination as soon as they can, including buying flights on other airlines."

Read more: Air traffic control chaos: How to get compensation for delayed flights, and whether airlines owe you a refund

"But he said while airlines - who are not at fault for the failure - will not need to fork out compensation, although they are obliged to offer help."

National Air Traffic Services (NATS) said a technical fault caused problems processing flight plans.

They had to be sorted manually, which could not be done at the same speed as the automatic system on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Passengers have been left stuck at airports after hundreds were left without a flight
Passengers have been left stuck at airports after hundreds were left without a flight. Picture: Alamy

The fault was "identified and remedied" but the backlog of flights means passengers face days of disruption in the final part of the summer holidays.

Juliet Kennedy, NATS' operations director, apologised to passengers but warned "it will take some time for flights to return to normal".

"We will continue to work with the airlines and the airports to recover the situation. Our absolute priority is safety, and we will be investigating very thoroughly what happened today.

"Again, I would like to apologise for the impact on the travelling public and to tell you our teams will continue to work to get you on your way as soon as we can."

Transport secretary Mark Harper told LBC that experts looked at the problem but had ruled out a cyber attack.

Stranded Brits will hope the disruption is soon remedied in a week that has seen many lose their holidays altogether or get stuck abroad.

Amy and Holland, who were flying to Amsterdam, told LBC they were "really upset" and annoyed about their flight being cancelled.

Speaking at Glasgow Airport, they said they did not know when they could next go out to see friends there and would be unable to get time off due to work.

One holidaymaker stuck in Crete told LBC: "My flight was due to leave three hours ago, we've been on the runway for all that time.

"The pilots have been amazing and really helpful. There's lots of young families and children which is very tough. We just want to get home and they have just announced that the flight's been cancelled. Crisis in Crete!"

Neil Scott, from Newcastle, told LBC he could be stuck in Faro, Portugal, for a week after the air traffic control glitch.

He was set to fly to Glasgow on Monday evening and then head home but now EasyJet have offered them an alternative flight on September 5.

Neil said he will have to take unpaid leave from his social care job if they have to stay until then, and his wife will be late back to her job at a school.

The pair are on holiday with their two teenage sons who also face missing school.

Because he was offered a replacement flight on September 5 by his airline, he cannot book alternative flights and then claim a refund.

Neil said he was left with the possibility of taking unpaid leave as he cannot get home for at least a week.

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