UK air control chaos resolved but disruption expected to continue


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U.K. travel was left in turmoil after Britain’s air traffic control system suffered a major outage Monday, causing more than 1,500 flights to be canceled and thousands more delayed.

The mass disruption was caused by technical failures at National Air Traffic Control Services. This meant flight plans could not be properly processed, and instead, controllers needed to manually input them.

A statement released by NATS said: “The flight planning issue affected the system’s ability to automatically process flight plans, meaning that flight plans had to be processed manually which cannot be done at the same volume, hence the requirement for traffic flow restrictions. Our priority is always to ensure that every flight in the UK remains safe and we are sincerely sorry for the disruption this is causing.”

Related: TPG’s guide to understanding EU261 flight compensation

Around 790 flights set to depart U.K airports were grounded, and 785 flights due to arrive in the U.K. were cancelled, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium.

The disruptions occurred during a bank holiday and one of the busiest days in the year for U.K. travel. It brought the worst flight disruption in the U.K. since 2010 following the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull.

While the issues have been resolved, the trickle-down effects have left many passengers stranded and numerous flights out of position as they work to get back on schedule.

A statement from Heathrow Airport (LHR) said: “Schedules continue to be affected by yesterday’s restrictions on UK airspace. While the majority of passengers will still be able to travel, there will unfortunately be some disruption on some routes, including flight cancellations.

London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) saw the highest number of cancellations of all U.K. airports. CHRIS RATCLIFFE/GETTY IMAGES

“It is important for all passengers to check the status of their flight with their airline before traveling to Heathrow. Teams across the airport continue to do everything they can to minimize the impact on passengers and support those whose journeys have been affected.”

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British Airways advises passengers to check their flight status online before traveling to the airport.

A spokesperson for the airline said: “Like other airlines operating in the UK, we are continuing to experience the knock-on effects of yesterday’s NATS Air Traffic Control issue, which includes unavoidable delays and cancellations.

“Customers travelling today on short-haul services can move their flight to a later date free of charge if they wish, subject to availability. We’ve apologised for the huge inconvenience caused, which was outside of our control and thank our customers for their patience as we work hard to get back on track.”

Virgin Atlantic emerged from the disruptions relatively unscathed, seeing the cancellation of only two flights, VS231 and VS232, between Heathrow and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS).

A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson confirmed to TPG that the airline expects to operate a full schedule Tuesday and isn’t expecting any significant delays. However, the airline advised anyone due to travel to check their flight status in advance.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program, U.K. Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper warned that the disruption could take “some days to get completely everybody back to where they should be.”

In the same interview, Harper also confirmed that the disruption is not believed to have been caused by a cyber attack.

My flight was disrupted. Can I claim compensation?

Unfortunately not. According to the Civil Aviation Authority, the NATS disruption falls under “extraordinary circumstances,” meaning that passengers affected are unlikely to receive any compensation for their woes.

However, all is not lost. If your flight was canceled or significantly delayed, airlines must place you on the next flight to your destination free of charge (regardless of whether it is with a different carrier).

Airlines will also be expected to provide vouchers for passengers to buy food and drink and, where necessary, pay for transport or accommodation costs incurred due to the disruption.

The CAA advises that passengers can organize reasonable care and assistance themselves and claim back the costs at a later date.

“If you end up paying for things yourself, keep every receipt and do not spend more than is reasonable. Airlines are unlikely to refund you for things like luxury hotels or alcohol. Some will provide guidance on reasonable costs,” read a statement from the CAA.

It further said that any passengers who are unhappy with the length of time it takes for either a reimbursement or response from their airline should visit this section of their website on how to make a complaint.

For more information on your rights as a passenger during cancellations and disruptions, please check out our guide to EU21 flight compensation.

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