Air Traffic Control Phone System Failure Grounds Thousands in UK

By Paul Riegler on 7 December 2013
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Aircraft at London Heathrow earlier this week

Aircraft at London Heathrow earlier this week

Hundreds of flights have been either delayed or cancelled throughout the United Kingdom due to a technical issue at the UK’s air traffic control center in Swanwick.  The issue impacts thousands of passengers.

As of 3:30 p.m. GMT on Saturday, British Airways alone had cancelled almost 200 flights and over 300 were delayed according to FlightStats, a flight reporting service.

The problem, an issue with the Swanwick center’s telephone system, has caused “a significant reduction in capacity in some areas of UK en-route airspace,” National Air Traffic Services said.

Flights to and from most airports in the U.K., London’s Heathrow Airport, the nation’s busiest, as well as flights to and from London City and London Gatwick, were impacted.  A spokesman from London Heathrow said that passengers “should check the status of your flight with your airline.”

In a statement shortly after noon in London, NATS said that it had identified the problem and anticipated it would take until 6:30 p.m. to resolve.

British Airways, in a statement on its website, said that it was experiencing “Significant delays and cancellations” in its Heathrow shorthaul schedule.  It advised passengers “not travel to the airport unless your flight is confirmed as operating.”  Virgin Atlantic issued a similar statement, noting that “some of our flights may experience delays or cancellations.” Easyjet, a shorthaul carrier, said it was “experiencing severe delays to flights to, from and within the UK.”

National Air Traffic Services, in a statement on its website, explained that the problem involved a failure in “switching [its internal phone system] from night time to daytime operation.”  At nighttime, because there is less air traffic, NATS can combine sectors of airspace.  The phone system is configured to support the switch to night mode and back again to day mode when it gets busy again.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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