Gulf Daily News analyzes the sequelaes of the computor failure in Britain yesterday

December 13, 2014

LONDON: A computer failure at an air traffic control centre sparked travel chaos in Britain yesterday as the peak Christmas season gets underway, officials said.

Heathrow Airport, Europe’s busiest hub, said 50 flights had to be cancelled and warned passengers to check their flight status before setting off.

After more than an hour in which some departures were blocked and arrivals diverted, Britain’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) said the system had been restored and services were returning to normal.

The London airports system is the busiest hub in the world with around 135 million passengers a year.

Other British airports, including Bristol, Edinburgh and Leeds were also affected.

‘Disruption on this scale is simply unacceptable and I have asked NATS for a full explanation of this evening’s incident,’ transport minister Patrick McLoughlin said.

Brussels-based Eurocontrol, which earlier reported that airspace over London had been shut down, said a ‘measured recovery’ was underway.

NATS had earlier said that it was ‘restricting traffic volumes’ following a technical problem at the Swanwick control centre in southern England.

‘UK airspace has not been closed, but airspace capacity has been restricted in order to manage the situation,’ it said in a statement on its website.

Air France said around 20 of its flights were affected, including one flight headed for Dublin, which was forced to turn back to Paris.

Two Iberia flights that left Madrid for London also returned to their departure point.

Heathrow Airport said in a tweet that the failure was caused by a ‘power outage’, while British media reported that there had been a ‘radar display issue’.

Henry Smith, who was at Heathrow on his way to South Africa for a business trip, said some flights were taking off again after the earlier delays.

‘It’s strange because the first anybody knew about it was when the BBC alert went out on their iPhones,‘ he said.

‘There was a slightly eerie void where people were trying to work out what was going on.

‘There’s no riot yet. There’ll be a couple of hours of backlog but I guess it all seems to be fine now.‘

The ‘only drama’ was businessmen ‘squabbling’ because there were no spare seats in the lounge, he added.

NATS’ managing director apologised for the disruption and said it was still investigating the cause.

Martin Rolfe ruled out a power outage, confirming there was a failure in the flight element of the system which left controllers with reduced data available to them.

Rolfe also said a computer hack had been ruled out.

Travel body Abta encouraged passengers expecting to take a flight to contact their airline.

British Airways said if its customers did not want to travel from Heathrow, Gatwick or London City yesterday evening, they could rebook or get a full refund.

This is not the first time that a technical failure at Swanwick has caused travel chaos. One of the worst problems was a year ago when thousands of passengers were left stranded when hundreds of flights were grounded following a technical fault at the Hampshire centre.

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