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The UK air traffic control failure that led to hundreds of flight cancellations and left thousands of passengers stranded over the August bank holiday weekend was caused by a piece of data that computers could not process.
Martin Rolfe, chief executive of the National Air Traffic Services, said on Wednesday that a part of its computer systems collapsed because it did not “recognise a message”, according to initial indications.
“The piece that failed, and it failed because it didn’t recognise a message . . . meant we were unable to process as many flights as quickly as we normally would,” Rolfe told BBC Radio 4.
More than one quarter of inbound and outbound UK flights were cancelled on Monday, and many more delayed, after air traffic controllers severely restricted the number of aircraft arriving at and leaving UK airports.
The system outage — which Nats is investigating ahead of delivering a report to the government next week — forced employees to input individual flight plans manually.
Nats said on Tuesday that its systems were “operating as normal”, but many travellers are still stuck.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday it was important that carriers worked to repatriate stranded Britons.
“It is important that airlines honour their obligations to passengers with regards to accommodation and flights to bring them back home,” he said.
Airline executives meanwhile called on Nats to cover their costs. Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association, which represents carriers, said Nats should be fined over the incident, noting that the costs to airlines from the failure could amount to £100mn.
Walsh told the BBC that the incident created an opportunity for the sector to examine how passenger compensation was handled, ensuring that those responsible for delays and cancellations “ultimately bear the cost”.
But the former British Airways chief executive added: “We need to be careful that if they [Nats] are charged, if they are fined . . . that they don’t pass that cost on to the airlines, which is the regulatory model that exists.”
Rolfe said the failure was “incredibly rare” and that it had affected an isolated part of the air traffic system.
“If we receive an unusual piece of data that we don’t recognise, it is critically important that information, which could be erroneous, is not passed to air traffic controllers,” he said.
Rory Boland, travel editor at the consumer group Which?, said stranded passengers should be aware that their airline had a responsibility to reroute them, “even if that means buying them a ticket with a rival carrier — a rule that some airlines appear to be ignoring”.
“Passengers should also be given food and refreshments and overnight accommodation if required,” he added.
But the Civil Aviation Authority, the aviation regulator, said affected passengers were unlikely to be able to claim compensation because “this incident is likely to be considered extraordinary circumstances”.
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