18 May 2002

Flight chaos as computers fail at home and abroad

By Barrie Clement Transport Editor

Flights across Britain and the Continent were thrown into disarray yesterday when two computers crashed, one at Swanwick, in Hampshire, and another in Brussels.

It was the third time in two months that British airspace was hit by software problems, causing the worst disruption yet. Engineers fixed the glitch at Swanwick, but services were then hit by problems at the European Flight Co-ordination Centre at Brussels.

Scores of flights were cancelled yesterday morning and some services were delayed by up to six hours as engineers battled to solve the technical problem which hit the £623m control
centre at Swanwick.

The system finally returned to full capacity shortly before 11.20am, after five hours of chaos
which affected every major British airport.

As the British air traffic control system returned to normal Brussels crashed, creating
massive delays all over the Continent. The Belgian centre was said to be back in full
operation by 4pm yesterday, but there was no clear indication when the backlog of flights
would be cleared.

Changes to the system at Swanwick to cater for alterations in French airspace had been completed overnight, but when National Air Traffic Services (NATS) attempted to switch on more workstations to cope with the increased day-time workload, the problem was discovered.

Richard Everitt, chief executive of NATS, said the organisation was limited to a "night-time
configuration", halving the number of flights that could be handled.

Previous computer glitches affected the old centre at West Drayton in March and April, the
former leading to severe disruption to pre-Easter services. Mr Everitt insisted there was no link between computer difficulties and the financial problems at the partly-privatised company.

The Labour MP Martin Salter, a former Heathrow union official, told the BBC's World at One: "It is a pretty dismal set of circumstances.

"We have got a shiny new computer suite, provided by the private sector – by Lockheed, the very firm that had the nerve to bid for running the whole of NATS – and these things go down after only a few months' operation. Thank goodness for the professionalism and dedication of the air traffic controllers themselves.

"There's a huge question mark over just how valuable private sector involvement has been in
the whole saga of the future of NATS."

The shadow transport minister Eric Pickles said he did not believe safety was compromised. But he added: "I think NATS needs to have a proper reassessment of its software. This is three times in two months and it is three times too many.

"Mr Byers was warned and understands the problem, but I dare say that if you were stuck at Heathrow or Gatwick and told 'Don't worry, Mr Byers is in charge', it would come as little comfort."

A spokesman at the Department of Transport said: "Clearly we regret any delay to passengers but this is an operational matter for NATS."