Air traffic failures caused by ‘one in 15 million’ incident

posted on 6th September 2023 by William Hallowell
Air traffic failures

The air traffic control failures that plunged airports into chaos over the August bank holiday weekend were caused by a “one in 15 million” occurrence according to NATS boss, Martin Rolfe.

After a preliminary report into the incident was published today, Mr Rolfe confirmed the failures happened because one of its systems failed to process a flight properly.

NATS found that the failings occurred due to an anomaly that forced the system to stop processing flight plans. The system was closed to maintain safety and required manual operation to continue service.

The body said that its technical infrastructure was found to have encountered an “extremely rare set of circumstances” presented by a flight plan that included two identically named, but separate waypoint markers outside of UK airspace.

This led to a “critical exception” whereby both the primary system and its backup entered a fail-safe mode.

Asked of the odds of such an event occurring, the NATS boss said: “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 UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said today that it will launch an independent review into the failings, which saw around a quarter of a million passengers affected.

It added that if there is evidence that suggests NATS may have breached its statutory and licensing obligations, the CAA will take any appropriate steps. The review will set out lessons to be learned for the future for the benefit of consumers and the industry.

Rob Bishton, joint-interim chief executive of the CAA, said: “Millions of passengers every year rely on air traffic control to work smoothly and safely.

“The initial report by NATS raises several important questions and as the regulator we want to make sure these are answered for passengers and industry.

“If there is evidence to suggest NATS may have breached its statutory and licensing obligations we will consider whether any further action is necessary.”

Transport secretary, Mark Harper, added that he welcomes NATS’ report and that he echoes the body’s apology over the failings.

Meanwhile, editor of Which? Travel, Rory Boland, has criticised airlines for poor communication with passengers and reiterated the consumer champion’s campaign to give the CAA greater powers of enforcement over airlines failing to meet their duty of care to travellers.

He said: “While passengers understood that [the air traffic failures were] not an issue caused by airlines, they were understandably frustrated by the poor communication and lack of care they received from carriers.

“During travel crises, we see repeat offending from airlines looking to wriggle out of their legal responsibilities knowing that they’re unlikely to face any real consequences for leaving passengers high and dry during periods of disruption…

“The prime minister must give the Civil Aviation Authority stronger enforcement powers in the King’s Speech later this year, so that this ongoing cycle of poor behaviour from airlines can finally be broken.”

Airside will provide more updates on the air traffic failures as they come.

Image credit: Business Insider (screengrab)