Airline passengers suffered a day of delays and frustration as a telephone system glitch at air traffic control caused major disruption at airports across the UK and Ireland - including Stansted.

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Hundreds of flights were cancelled or delayed after the problem arose at the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) centre in Swanwick, Hampshire.

Thousands of people were caught up in the chaos, which hit major airports including Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. Passengers are also expected to be affected as knock-on effects hit flights on Sunday.

Nats’ night-time operating system, which combines sectors of airspace for when it is less busy, did not properly switch over to the daytime system, causing a communication problem with the centre’s internal telephones. They stressed that safety was not at risk at any time.

At 7.30pm tonight, a Nats spokesman said: “The problem that arose this morning with the ground communications system in the area control operations room at Nats Swanwick has now been resolved and operations are returning to normal.

“The technical and operational contingency measures we have had in place all day have enabled us to deliver more than 80% of our normal operation.

“The reduction in capacity has had a disproportionate effect on southern England because it is extremely complex and busy airspace and we sincerely regret inconvenience to our airline customers and their passengers.

“To be clear, this is a very complex and sophisticated system with more than a million lines of software. This is not simply internal telephones, it is the system that controllers use to speak to other ATC agencies both in the UK and Europe and is the biggest system of its kind in Europe.

“This has been a major challenge for our engineering team and for the manufacturer, who has worked closely with us to ensure this complex problem was resolved as quickly as possible while maintaining a safe service.”

The problem occurred when the 23 controllers on a night shift at Swanwick handed over to the 125 controllers on the day shift at about 6am. It was not until 7.30pm that Nats announced the problem had been fixed.

Nats said that by 4pm they had handled 2,576 flights compared with the 2,905 flights that were dealt with at the same time last week, meaning that they were operating at about 88% of normal capacity.

Ryanair called for action to prevent it happening again. In a statement, the airline said: “Ryanair is calling on the Civil Aviation Authority to intervene and prevent further chaos for thousands of passengers affected by this ATC failure. While we acknowledge problems can occur, where is the contingency? It’s simply not good enough and the CAA needs to act now.”

Heathrow Airport was the worst affected, with 228 cancellations - 112 in arrivals, and 116 departures, with most being short-haul flights. A spokesman for the airport said the cancellations represented 15% of their usual daily total of 1,300 flights going in and out of the airport.

A spokesman for Stansted Airport said they had continued to experience delays throughout the day, which ranged in time from 10 minutes to four hours. The average delay was two hours, he said, adding that flights were expected to operate as normal tomorrow.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said: “The CAA is in close contact with Nats to ensure they are managing this operational issue effectively, and they are working to resolve the situation swiftly, while ensuring that the service remains safe at all times.”

The authority said customers were entitled to assistance from their airline if they had been delayed for several hours, including being given food and drink, often provided in the form of vouchers.

Have you been affected by the delays? Contact the newsroom on 01473 324732 or email


  • Given the number of flights that operate successfully in the UK on a daily basis, I fundamentally disagree with you that air travel forms part of a "pathetic transport system". There is a contingency plan. It's been working all day - planes have been taking off and landing. It just works a little slower. The delays are obviously frustrating, but everyone will get to where they need to eventually. The only way we will achieve what you are asking for is to have a redundant system, that can do exactly what the current system can do with the same capacity, but in a completely different way with no touch points whatsoever with the current system. I'm not convinced that would be worth the additional cost to every air traveller (for designing, building, maintaining and training staff on the redundant system), given how rarely the redundant system would be needed.

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    Saturday, December 7, 2013

  • How typical of Britain's pathetic transport system, that there is no Plan B or back up system to cope with such a problem. If it's not a touch of snow on the roads that leads to complete chaos, it's the shameful rail network, so it shouldn't come as a big surprise that air travel isn't much better!

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    Saturday, December 7, 2013

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