British airports recover from airspace closure

British airports have returned to normal operations after a technical fault affected air traffic control on Friday, having a knock-on effect during the weekend.

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An independent inquiry will now take place

A computer systems failure at National Air Traffic Services’ (Nats) flight data system at Swanwick caused cancellations and delays on Friday, after the fault affected a system which controls the 200,000 square miles of airspace above England and Wales and handles 5,000 flights every day.

Although the system was soon restored to full operating capacity, airports around the country were affected by the fault including the two busiest facilities London Heathrow and London Gatwick where departing flights were grounded, prompting cancellations and delays.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and NATS have now agreed to an independent inquiry into the disruption. An independent chair of NATS technical experts, a CAA board member and independent experts will form the group with a consultation with airlines and consumer groups.

According to the BBC, 84 flights were cancelled at Heathrow on Friday, and many were delayed for up to one hour, with disruption carrying over to Saturday. On the other side of the London Orbital, 19 flights were cancelled at Gatwick and passengers were delayed for up to 90 minutes.

The major disruption had knock-on effects for other airports around the country. There were flight cancellations and delays at London City Airport, and flights were rerouted at Birmingham airport. Other airports reporting delays included Stanstead, Newcastle, Luton, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Southampton, Leeds Bradford, East Midlands, and Manchester.

The British government called the outage “unacceptable” and is calling for a full investigation into the incident.

Nats launched an immediate investigation into the incident on Friday as it looked to establish the route cause. Managing director Martin Rolfe quickly ruled out both a computer hack and a power outage as possible causes. It emerged on Saturday that the error occurred due to a malfunction in the computer systems. Nats said the failure meant that the controllers were unable to access all of the data regarding individual flight plans, while reassuring the public that safety was not compromised.

Rolfe is now in the firing line from agitated passengers and angry airline bosses who estimate that costs could run into the millions and they have no liability for the incident.

This is bad news for Nats, a partly privatised entity, which has been responsible for a number of major technical problems since 2002, including a telephone failure at the Hampshire control room which caused huge disruption a year ago.

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