11 April 2002

Flights in chaos as 'patched-up' air traffic computer crashes for the second time

By Barrie Clement Transport Editor

Thousands of passengers were delayed by up to three hours yesterday after a "creaky,
patched-up" 30-year-old computer at Britain's part-privatised air traffic control service
crashed for the second time in two weeks.

A crucial electronic system at the centre in West Drayton, near Heathrow, was down for just 16 minutes, but there was a severe impact on services in England and Wales. A similar problem on 27 March, when the wrong information was fed into the equipment, disrupted pre-Easter services.

Iain Findlay, from the air traffic controllers' union Prospect, said the computer in question had
been hit by a series of problems. "It is a very creaky system that has been patched together over a number of years. It does seem to be susceptible to crashing."

A spokesman for National Air Traffic Services (Nats) said safety was not impaired by the

The computer that crashed provides electronic flight data for use at the new £623m Nats complex at Swanwick, Hampshire. Controllers at the Hampshire centre could still see aircraft on their radar monitors, but the West Drayton system was not producing vital numerical information. While the computer was down the data had to be compiled manually, forcing the controllers to insist on a wider separation between aircraft, causing delays.

British Airways had to cancel a Heathrow-Brussels flight as well as a Heathrow to Frankfurt
service. There were delays of up to three hours at Manchester and at Stansted in Essex.
Birmingham and Gatwick also suffered delays.

Richard Everitt, chief executive of Nats, said the system was down between 6.05am and 6.21am. "We were reduced to about 30 per cent of capacity fairly soon after this problem occurred and obviously we are very sorry for the inconvenience caused to passengers and the airlines, and we are going to investigate this very thoroughly."

Theresa May, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "Air passengers need to be reassured that these repeated breakdowns are not a fundamental deterioration in the service provided under the new Nats."