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U.K. ATC Meltdown 'One in 15-Million Event'

So States NATS CEO

The head of the U.K.’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) has ascribed a 28 August 2023 breakdown of  the country’s local and en-route ATC network to a "one in 15-million" event occasioned by a single flight-plan bearing two identically-labeled markers.

The systemwide meltdown forced the cancellations of over 1,500 flights and stranded thousands of air-travelers across the European Union.

Faced with airlines’ calls for compensation for lost revenues, NATS CEO Martin Rolfe stated: "This was a one in 15-million chance. We've processed 15-million flight-plans with this system up until this point and never seen this before."

Rolfe averred in the hours following the breakdown of ATC services that the occurrence would not be repeated.

A preliminary report released by NATS set forth the so-called poison flight-plan met E.U. standards but included two disparate but identically-named waypoints outside U.K. airspace. The disparity apparently prompted the NATS computer network and its backup to enter a “fail-safe” mode. Faced with the dilemma of being able to neither accept the flight-plan in the absence of data pertaining to its ramifications, nor approving the flight-plan and risking the corruption of safety-critical air-traffic data, the system locked-up.

"It therefore stopped operating, avoiding any opportunity for incorrect data being passed to a controller," the NATS report stated.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general Willie Walsh asserted in a blog post that NATS management had "some serious explaining to do." Walsh argued monies from the NATS budget ought be allocated to not only repairing the self-evidently vulnerable U.K. ATC system, but to compensating airlines for revenues lost on account of the debacle.

In a video posted to “X” (formerly Twitter), Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary opined the NATS report was “full of rubbish” and suggested “heads should roll” at NATS.

The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)—the statutory corporation by which all aspects of civil aviation throughout the United Kingdom are overseen—will review the circumstances surrounding the NATS failure and make an assessment pertaining to whether or not further punitive or correctional action is necessary. So stated CAA interim CEO Rob Bishton.

IATA estimated the delayed and canceled flights resultant of the NATS ATC SNAFU could cost airlines up to £100-million ($126-million). Under E.U. law, passengers may, in the event of flight cancellation, collect compensation for hotel stays and replacement ticket purchases from the airlines by which they were inconvenienced.

British multinational low-cost air-carrier easyJet contended the NATS report left key questions unanswered and called for a comprehensive examination of the organization’s resources and IT systems for purpose of ensuring “it is fit for purpose today and in the future.”

Unlike the federalized U.S. ATC system, which is organized, managed, and implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration, NATS is a public-private partnership comprising a 51-percent private-sector stake. By way of breakdown, 49-percent of NATS—the golden share—is held by the U.K. government; 42-percent is held by the International Airline Group, an Anglo-Spanish multinational airline holding company formed in 2011 following a merger agreement between British Airways and Iberia; five-percent is held by NATS employees, and four-percent is held by U.K. airport operator LHR (London Heathrow) Airports Ltd.

NATS is split into two primary entities: NATS En-Route PLC (NERL) and NATS Services Ltd (NSL).

NERL is the sole-provider of civilian en-route air traffic control over the U.K. and is regulated by the CAA. NERL is funded by fees charged by Eurocontrol for the provision of air traffic services.

Conversely, NSL competes for contracts to provide approach, departure, and VFR control tower services at airports in the UK and overseas. Also, NSL provides ATC-related services the likes of engineering, consultancy, information services, and air traffic controller training.

FMI: www.nats.aero

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