Key Points:

  • The worst air-traffic outage in the UK in nearly a decade resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations and delays, impacting major airlines and airports on an especially busy travel day.

  • British Airways and EasyJet have advised passengers to confirm their flight status before heading to the airport and are offering flexibility for rescheduling.

  • UK airspace manager NATS has restored systems, but normal service restoration could take days due to the displacement of aircraft.

Massive Flight Disruptions Continue at Major UK Airports

LONDON — Airline operators, including British Airways and EasyJet, are working feverishly to recover from the UK's most severe air-traffic disruption in a decade, which saw hundreds of flights delayed and canceled. This comes after a glitch in the automated flight planning system at the Swanwick operations room, approximately 100 kilometers southwest of London, forced a manual operation. The outage happened during an extraordinarily busy travel period coinciding with a national holiday and the return of summer-vacation travelers.

Around 790 flights departing from UK airports were canceled on Monday, constituting around 27% of all outbound flights. A similar number of incoming flights were also axed. Irish budget carrier Ryanair disclosed that more than 20 of its aircraft could not return to their home bases on Monday night.

On Tuesday, London Heathrow Airport, one of the most affected hubs, reported 78 delays and 32 cancellations. This is in contrast to the 170 flights that were scrapped on Monday. London's second major airport, Gatwick, registered 23 cancellations on Tuesday. "While most passengers will still be able to travel, there will be some unavoidable disruption, including cancellations," said a spokesperson for London Heathrow.

Both British Airways and EasyJet issued advisories for passengers scheduled to fly on Tuesday, urging them not to proceed to the airport without confirming the status of their flights. These carriers also offered flexibility for passengers due to depart on Monday or Tuesday, including free flight rescheduling and, in EasyJet's case, refunds.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper, in a conversation with ITV's Good Morning Britain, emphasized the rarity of the situation, stating, "An outage of this magnitude hasn't happened for nearly a decade." Although NATS, the UK airspace manager, has fixed the malfunction, full service restoration could take days due to the repositioning of aircraft. The airspace over England and Wales is coordinated from Swanwick by NATS, whose main contractor was Lockheed Martin Corp.

While the exact reason for the system failure remains undisclosed by NATS, a report by The Times speculated that an incorrectly filed flight plan by a French airline might have triggered the problem. When Swanwick commenced operations in 2002, nearly five years later than planned and 30% over budget, it had already encountered some software issues.