+44 (0)20 7768 0001

Sign up to our newsletter

Privacy policy

Airport meltdown: why we need a stable air traffic control system

‘An international embarrassment.’
By Paul Charles, CEO, The PC Agency.

The emotional and financial costs of the seven-hour air traffic control outage on Monday are rising by the minute. Every airline flying into and from the UK was affected in some way, causing untold stress for over half a million passengers, many of them families travelling together in the dusk of the summer holidays.

Over 2,000 flights have been cancelled, honeymoons and holidays ruined, babies forced to sleep on airport floors and one of the busiest weeks of the year scarred by an IT meltdown at NATS, the full cause of which has not yet really been explained.

Our infrastructure, and this breakdown, is becoming an international embarrassment, coming just a few weeks after the collapse of the e-gate border system across all UK airports.

It’s over 20 years since Swanwick Air Traffic Control Centre opened with a fanfare. Designed in a different era, before the iPhone was even invented, the Centre was built at a time when there were far fewer flights, and nothing like the 6,000+ that criss-cross UK airspace every day.

UK airspace is complex – over 200,000 miles are monitored by NATS – and the UK’s geographical location means many aircraft don’t even land at our airports but simply fly over us at 35,000 feet or more to get to the USA or other destinations.

So it’s even more important for an independent government enquiry to be held so as to get to grips with whether our aviation infrastructure is up to the job.

Our critical systems, that at one extreme help to protect our country and, at the other, help us to get away on holiday, need to be fit-for-purpose as consumer demand to fly is predicted to rise sharply over the next 20 years.

This latest meltdown hasn’t just hurt consumers in the pocket, many of whom will spend far more than they will get back through refunds, due to having to make alternative arrangements or merely passing the time at the airport waiting for flight information by buying another coffee or sandwich (flight delays are good news for the many airport cafes at least).

It has also hurt hard done-by airlines, who had nothing to do with this latest malfunction, who will collectively lose well over £100million by having to pay out refunds to passengers, get pilots and cabin crews back from abroad and pay out for shifts that were never completed.

It’s ironic that many of the hundreds of thousands of consumers caught up in this crisis had never even heard of NATS, or understood its role overseeing our airspace, before last Monday. Now passengers want to know what it’s doing to ensure future trips are as seamless as they expect.