UK air traffic data feed problems force flight cancellations

Problems with key air traffic control systems led to serious flight delays and cancellations across the UK yesterday.

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Problems with key air traffic control systems led to serious flight delays and cancellations across the UK yesterday.

A fault with an electronic data feed at Nats, the air traffic control provider, meant information on planes flying above 24,000 feet was interrupted.

The centre, at Swanwick, had to switch to manual systems as a result, and nearly 100 flights across the country were grounded in order to ensure sufficient space between planes in the air for manual control.

Nats said the system was not working for “several hours” and that it was fixed at 7pm yesterday (Thursday). Flights are slowly getting back to normal, and airport operator BAA anticipates a near-normal service later today at its airports, which include Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

The air traffic control systems at Swanwick are designed and run by aerospace specialist Lockheed Martin, which this year signed an £80 million, five-year deal with Nats to support London area flight control at Swanwick.

Lockheed Martin would not confirm if its technology was involved in the problem affecting the feed of data into controller workstations, referring all queries to Nats, which also declined to comment on the IT.

The Swanwick control centre handles 8,000 flights a day, and at the time of the centre’s opening in 2002, Nats said: “The centre expects to be continuously operational 24 hours per day, 365 days a year for the next 30+ years.”

The original systems were created with two million lines of software code, and there were 23 sub-systems connected by over 30 miles of cable, supplying information to over 200 workstations. Information fed to controllers includes flight plan, situational and support data. Some 650,000 hours of testing were conducted on the system.

Glitches also occurred in 2002 and 2004, disrupting flights. A £50 million upgrade to the systems in March 2007 had led to complaints that the technology was difficult to handle, the Guardian reported.

A BAA spokesperson said flights were still being disrupted after the latest problem. “Aircraft continue to land and depart, however the process is slower than normal, which means that inevitably some flights will be delayed and some will be cancelled.”

An investigation is currently underway into the problems.

Ian Hall, NATS’ director of operational performance, said last night: “Safety has not been compromised at any stage and we sincerely apologise to those who have been inconvenienced this evening.”

“We take every step to avoid any problems but are always aware, that in maintaining and updating highly complex systems, we can experience difficulties.” Nats would not say if a systems upgrade had caused the problems.

Last year, NATS won a quality award for the introduction of an integrated SAP business system. The project delivered new back-office systems - on time and to budget - that were used by 1,100 staff in the first two hours.

In July, a faulty network card brought down Dublin Airport's radar system.