Disruption to flights could last days after air-traffic control failure

‘Technical issue’ that grounded hundreds of planes to and from UK having knock-on effect on schedules

A passenger at Stansted Airport, 29 August 2023
A quarter of UK arrivals and departures were cancelled on Monday
(Image credit: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images)

Airline passengers could face severe disruption for the rest of this week after an air-traffic control system failure caused hundreds of flights to and from the UK to be cancelled on one of the busiest days of the year.

The “technical issue” suffered by Britain’s National Air Traffic Services (Nats) on Monday, which affected its ability to automatically process flight plans and forced it to restrict the capacity of UK airspace, meant that 790 departures from British airports were cancelled yesterday along with 785 arrivals. This represents about 27% of all scheduled flights, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester were the worst affected airports.

Passengers left stranded in airport departure lounges overnight “complained at being unable to find help on the ground, facing closed call centres and airline apps that keep crashing”, said The Times. The paper reported “chaotic scenes at airports across European holiday hotspots” as “carriers made sweeping cancellations in an attempt to patch together their schedules, which were left in tatters by the five-hour outage”.

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While the glitch has now be fixed, Transport Secretary Mark Harper warned disruption was “going to take some days” to resolve.

Airlines were on Tuesday “racing to restore flights and bring back stranded passengers”, said the Financial Times. As system failures are deemed “extraordinary circumstances” airlines are not expected to need to pay compensation. But they “will need to offer refunds or an alternative flight to passengers”, added the paper.

While those travellers affected will not be entitled to compensation, some travel insurance policies “may fill in the gaps”, claimed The Guardian. “Check the small print: many will offer some payout for prepaid hotels or excursions where no refund is available, should delays mean you miss out on part of the trip.”

The transport secretary has said the cause of the failure will be investigated by the Civil Aviation Authority, but the government was “clear it wasn’t a cyber attack”.

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