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LONDON — Flights to and from the UK were temporarily suspended on Monday due to a technical glitch that experts said reflected serious weaknesses in the UK air transport industry.
According to British officials, the outage lasted about three hours. Analysts said the disruption – which came on a national holiday and during peak tourist season – could have affected up to a million people and it could take several days for any associated delays to be resolved.
Britain’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS) said in a statement Monday afternoon it had “identified and fixed” an IT issue affecting automated flight planning across the country, including at London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest international airports in the world World.
NATS said it had never closed UK airspace but instead imposed “traffic flow restrictions” while air traffic controllers had to resort to manual systems to sequence aircraft departures and landings.
“We are now working closely with airlines and airports to manage affected flights as efficiently as possible. “Our engineers will carefully monitor the performance of the system as we return to normal operations,” NATS said.
Around 3,000 flights were due to arrive in the country on Monday, with another 3,000 scheduled for departure.
“Any disruption that affects about a million passengers is a serious problem,” said Paul Charles, an aviation expert. “These systems shouldn’t fall over, especially on one of the busiest days of the year.”
“It’s a symbol that our extensive IT infrastructure is cracking at the seams,” he said, implying a lack of investment during the coronavirus pandemic when travel has slowed.
The impact on Monday extended well beyond the UK. The European air traffic control authority Eurocontrol warned of “very high” delays because “a failure of the flight data processing system” had occurred in Great Britain. Ireland’s air traffic controller AirNav Ireland said in a statement that there had been “significant delays to flights across Europe flying into, out of or through UK airspace”.
Passengers involved in the chaos shared their experiences.
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Hassan boarded an EasyJet flight bound for London’s Luton Airport in Inverness, Scotland, on Monday morning. But after nearly two hours on the tarmac, passengers were asked to exit the plane, expecting a six to seven hour delay.
Sky News producer Georgia Ziebart said her flight – from Palma, Mallorca to London’s Gatwick Airport – was told that all planes in the air at the time of the system failure had been diverted to other countries.