Air traffic control fault forcing hundreds of flights to be cancelled 'fixed' but passengers face days of disruption

28 August 2023, 15:42 | Updated: 30 August 2023, 06:35

Thousands of passengers will be affected by flight delays
Thousands of passengers will be affected by flight delays. Picture: Alamy/LBC/Flight Radar

By Will Taylor

A serious failure of UK air traffic control systems that forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights has been "identified and remedied" - but days of disruption are ahead.

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Holidaymakers were left stranded at airports in Britain and abroad as National Air Traffic Services (NATS) said a fault caused problems processing flight plans.

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

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.

NATS said in a statement: "We have identified and remedied the technical issue affecting our flight planning system this morning.

Passengers have been stranded across the UK, including at Heathrow
Passengers have been stranded across the UK, including at Heathrow. Picture: Alamy
British Airways plane
British Airways plane. Picture: Getty

"We are now working closely with airlines and airports to manage the flights affected as efficiently as possible. Our engineers will be carefully monitoring the system's performance as we return to normal operations.

"The flight planning issue affected the system's ability to automatically process flight plans, meaning that flight plans had to be processed manually which cannot be done at the same volume, hence the requirement for traffic flow restrictions.

"Our priority is always to ensure that every flight in the UK remains safe and we are sincerely sorry for the disruption this is causing. Please contact your airline for information on how this may affect your flight."

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."

British Airways cancelled all domestic and European flights until at least 6pm due to the issue.

Ryanair, Jet2, and Virgin are among the raft of airlines hit. The problem was thought to have begun at about 8.30am.

A spokesperson for Heathrow said: "The issue has been resolved, however schedules remain significantly disrupted.

"If you are travelling on 29th August, please ensure you contact your airline before travelling to the airport."

There is no indication on when normal service will resume and thousands still face disruption.

Paul Charles, chief executive at travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: "This six hour outage will impact flights for five days. The reason for that is that you have so many planes and crews that are out of position.

"It always takes three days to recover anyway. Then you have the higher volume of people travelling at the moment, with numbers back to approaching pre-pandemic levels. That means this relatively short outage will impact for five days."

Transport secretary Mark Harper said "flights are still unfortunately affected" and he would "encourage all passengers to read the UK Civil Aviation Authority's guidance & be aware of their rights when flights are delayed or cancelled".

According to data from aviation analytics firm Cirium as of 14:30pm on Bank Holiday Monday, more than 500 flights have been cancelled due to the technical issue, around 8.5 per cent of arrivals and departures.

This does not include flights that have been delayed - which measure at some 80% of departures from the UK.

Travel journalist Simon Calder said: "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."

Holland and Amy will be unable to travel to Amsterdam after their flight was cancelled
Holland and Amy will be unable to travel to Amsterdam after their flight was cancelled. Picture: LBC

According to aviation analyst Alex Macheras, even just a few minutes of a system failure would cause significant travel chaos.

"This is going to be significant. In fact, it already is and that’s because this is a system failure with the UK’s air traffic control service provider," Mr Macheras told LBC's Sangita Myska.

"They are responsible for handling and managing the UK’s air traffic control across UK airspace, on of the busiest airspaces across all of Europe."

He added that the worst affected by the system failure will be "flights not yet departed or are abroad and preparing to depart to the UK".

"It only takes a few minutes of this type of outage to rack up significant delays. We are now over the hour mark. If your aircraft has not yet taken off, expect significant disruption," he added.

UK passengers are facing extreme delays
UK passengers are facing extreme delays. Picture: Getty

Read More: Exact date 10-day heatwave to hit UK after washout Bank Holiday weekend

Dozens of passengers have reported delays of around three to five hours.

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!"

Mellisa Littlewood told MailOnline: "We are on our way back to London from Disneyland and have just learnt we have a minimum of seven hour delay.

"Waiting to speak to someone from BA [British Airways] to find out what options we have but won't hold out breath.

"Two tired and unhappy children with two adults not sure what to do next."

Meanwhile, TV presenter Gabby Logan said she faced 12 hour delays as she returns from Budapest.

She wrote: "After almost 3 weeks away from home I am hours from hugging my family. And have just been told UK airspace is shut.

"We could be here for 12 hours. So we sit on the plane and wait."

Read More: Passengers injured as UK cruise ship crashes into freight vessel due to high winds in Mallorca

Passengers face a full day of delays
Passengers face a full day of delays. Picture: Getty

The Liberal Democrats called on the Prime Minister to convene a Cobra meeting after a technical fault hit air traffic control in the UK.

Transport spokesperson Wera Hobhouse said: "Rishi Sunak and his ministers need to get a grip on this issue urgently and hold a Cobra meeting.

"Millions of holidaymakers could be facing huge disruption in the coming days due to this fault and we can't risk this Government being missing in action yet again.

"Brits need to know that the Government is doing all it can to make sure people aren't hit with major delays and disruptions in the coming days."

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