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UK Air Traffic Chaos Continues: Thousands Stranded and Flights Disrupted

Over a quarter of flights to and from the UK were canceled on Monday, with 250,000 travelers impacted, after a technical fault took down air traffic control systems

by Lauren Smith

August 30, 2023

Photo: London Heathrow Airport. Courtesy of BAA Airports Limited.

The fallout from the failure of the UK’s air traffic control system on Monday could last for days, travelers have been warned, as tens of thousands of passengers are still stranded, and planes and crews remain out of position.

The chaos began around 11 a.m. on Monday, a public holiday in the UK, when the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) flight planning system experienced a “network-wide failure.”

The fault meant the system could not automatically process flight plans, forcing staff at the NATS control center in Swanwick, Hampshire, to input them manually, a much slower process. NATS had to enforce traffic flow restrictions, sharply curtailing the number of flights that could take off and land at British airports.

Photo: British Airways, Boeing 777-200ER. Courtesy of London Gatwick Airport

Around four hours later, NATS announced that its engineers had “identified and remedied the technical issue affecting our flight planning system.” But the lengthy outage had already disrupted the plans of tens of thousands of travelers.

According to aviation analytics company Cirium, 790 departures and 785 arrivals were canceled across UK airports on Monday, over a quarter (27%) of all scheduled flights. The cancellations impacted an estimated 250,000 travelers. Many other flights were significantly delayed, some by up to 12 hours.

The disruption was the most significant to UK aviation since 2010 when the eruption of a volcano in Iceland led to the suspension of nearly all flights in Europe and across the Atlantic for almost a week.

Tuesday brought no reprieve from the chaos as airlines scrambled to reposition planes and crew and serve the customers stranded by flight cancellations.

At least 281 flights have been axed across the UK’s six busiest airports, including 75 at London Gatwick (LGA), 74 at London Heathrow (LHR), 63 at Manchester (MAN), 28 at London Stansted (STN), 23 at London Luton (LTN), and 18 at Edinburgh (EDI). Many more were delayed by several hours.

Photo: Courtesy of London Gatwick Airport

Most impacted flights are short-haul connections to Europe, but some transatlantic flights have been scrapped, including a United Airlines flight from Heathrow to Houston, a Delta Airlines departure to New York City (JFK), and a British Airways flight to Nashville (BNA).

NATS cautioned that the disruption could last further into the week, a warning echoed by Transport Secretary Mark Harper. Travelers are encouraged to check with their airlines before departing for the airport.

Harper said that carriers have obligations to passengers left stranded. “Airlines have a responsibility either to get people back on a flight to get them home or to pay for them to be accommodated and to sort out accommodation of them, and for food or drink as well. If they don’t do it, people can pay for reasonable costs themselves and claim back from their airlines,” he said.

However, passengers are unlikely to be able to claim additional compensation for their inconvenience, as air traffic control issues are one of the “extraordinary circumstances” during which airlines don’t have to pay out.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the cause of the systems meltdown has been launched by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), with a report expected in just days.

Downing Street said experts had ruled out a cyber attack. But a spokesperson for the Prime Minister didn’t refute speculation that it was caused by a flight plan incorrectly filed by a French airline.