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OPINION - Airport chaos: ‘We’re now a laughing stock around the world’

It is ‘staggering’ that the UK’s air traffic control system was caused to “collapse’ by a piece of incorrect data, according to former British Airways boss Willie Walsh (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)
It is ‘staggering’ that the UK’s air traffic control system was caused to “collapse’ by a piece of incorrect data, according to former British Airways boss Willie Walsh (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)

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 Britain was affected in some way, causing untold stress for over half a million passengers, many of them families travelling together in the summer holidays.

More than 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 weeks after the collapse of the e-gate border system at our airports. It’s over 20 years since the Swanwick air traffic control centre opened with a fanfare. Designed in a different era, before the iPhone was even invented, it was built when there were far fewer flights, nothing like the 6,000+ that criss-cross our airspace every day now.

Our 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 to get to the USA or other destinations. So it’s even more important for an independent government inquiry to be held 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 hit the pockets of consumers, many of whom will spend far more than they will get back through refunds, due to having to make alternative arrange- ments or waiting at the airport for flight information and buying another coffee or sandwich (flight delays are good news for the airport cafes at least).

It has also hurt the airlines, who had nothing to do with this latest malfunction. They will collectively lose well over £100 million through having to pay out refunds to passengers, get pilots and cabin crews back from abroad and pay 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 rightly expect.

Paul Charles is CEO of travel consultancy The PC Agency