A highly unusual technical glitch caused significant disruptions at UK airports last week, leaving travelers stranded and flights canceled. National Air Traffic Services (NATS) CEO, Martin Rolfe, has described the incident as a “one in 15 million” occurrence, shedding light on the root cause of the chaos.
The Unprecedented Incident:
The disruption stemmed from a rare failure within NATS’ air traffic control system, as confirmed by Mr. Rolfe. The malfunction resulted in the system’s inability to process a flight plan correctly, leading to a cascade of issues across the aviation network.
NATS released a preliminary report outlining that the flight plan submitted by an unnamed airline was not inherently faulty. Instead, it was the failure within NATS’ processing system that triggered the crisis.
Preventing Future Recurrences:
In response to the incident, NATS is taking swift action to prevent such disruptions from happening again. The organization is implementing a permanent software change aimed at fortifying its systems against similar occurrences in the future.
Impacts on Travel:
The consequences of this technical failure were substantial. On a busy bank holiday Monday, NATS was unable to process flight plans automatically for several hours, leading to the cancellation of more than a quarter of flights and affecting approximately 250,000 passengers. The transition to manual processing drastically reduced the number of plans NATS could handle, causing widespread disruptions.
The fallout from this incident continued long after the disruption itself. Some families found themselves stranded for days, and certain airlines faced criticism for their handling of the situation, including passenger abandonment and a lack of refund offers.
When asked about the likelihood of a recurrence, Mr. Rolfe emphasized the rarity of the situation, stating, “We know it’s at least one in 15 million, because we’ve had 15 million flight plans through this system, and we can be absolutely certain that we’ve never seen this set of circumstances before.”
The problematic flight plan was scheduled to enter UK airspace during an 11-hour journey. It was initially submitted to European air traffic control before being transferred to NATS. The plan’s unique feature was two waypoints around 4,000 nautical miles apart, both with identical names. This specific configuration stumped NATS’ software, leading to the system’s shutdown, and even the backup system followed suit.
NATS has taken steps to address this issue, implementing an “operating instruction” to facilitate prompt system recovery in the event of a similar incident. Additionally, a “permanent software change” is on the horizon.
In response to the incident, the Civil Aviation Authority has initiated an independent review, which is expected to span approximately three months.