A couple of weeks ago I went to France for a few days, flying out of London City Airport on an early-morning British Airways flight to Nice. (There’s a photo of the terminal on the home page.) When I say a couple of weeks ago, to be precise I mean on Monday August 21. With hindsight, I was lucky it wasn’t the following Monday…
…which was when the whole system effectively went into meltdown. Apparently, a French airline submitted an incorrect flight plan which at 8.32 am on August 28 (a bank holiday here) caused the air traffic control systems operated in the UK by the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) to collapse. Martin Rolfe, chief executive of NATS, called the event “a one in 15 million flight plan that we received” and he explained the system “did what it was designed to do – fail safely when it receives data that it can’t process”. The error led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights and until the issue was corrected later in the day it meant flight plans had to be processed manually. Of course, things were not resolved later that day – that took until the end of the week – because now planes and pilots were in the wrong places. Of course (again!), one cock-up of that nature should not have had such devastating impact, but it did. NATS says steps have been taken to ensure there would be no repeat if the same thing happened again.
This was not the first time this year that passengers’ plans for holiday or business have been disrupted due to incidents at UK airports. May was a month of quite some airside mayhem. At Gatwick, flights were briefly suspended because of the activities of a drone. (In 2018, a spate of drone sightings at the airport caused over 1,000 cancellations or diversions.) You may recall that in a coincidence of timing not dissimilar to what happened on August 28, the late May bank holiday saw the e-gates at all UK airports fail to work, meaning that all passport-checking had to be done manually, just as occurred 10 days ago in the equivalent situation. That episode pretty much overlapped with BA cancelling nearly 200 flights due to a failure in its IT systems. Back at Gatwick, the threatened summer strikes over pay called by the Unite union did not go ahead but nor did 1,700 easyJet flights which the airline pulled in a pre-emptive effort to ameliorate the potential disruption. Honestly, especially given the weather this week, the benefits of a staycation have seldom looked more alluring.
As for my flights the other Monday, the one out was about 90 minutes late and the one back a bit more than that. The latter was especially annoying because there is quite a significant difference between landing at 8.55 pm, which I was supposed to do, and getting in at 10.30, which I did. But compared to what was about to come, I have to figure that I got off lightly.