U.K. Air Traffic Control Fault Causes Flight Delays

Thousands of passengers were delayed at airports across the U.K. after a technical fault in the system that manages the country’s air traffic disrupted flights.

London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest hub, canceled at least 217 flights today, according to Nathan Fletcher, a spokesman for Heathrow. Some flights left after delays of more than two hours, the airport said on its website. Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest discount carrier, said in a statement that more than 100 of its flights were affected and asked the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority to intervene.

“The problem that arose this morning with the ground communications system in the Area Control operations room at NATS Swanwick has now been resolved and operations are returning to normal,” National Air Traffic Services Holdings Ltd., the company that provides air traffic management services in the U.K., said in an e-mailed statement .

Operational limitations as a result of the faults at the Swanwick air traffic control center in southern England will remain in place until midnight, Eurocontrol, the region’s central airspace management organization, said on its website. Among the airports affected are London’s Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City, as well as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Southampton, according to the airports’ websites.

Flight Status

British Airways, the biggest user of Heathrow, advised passengers to check flight status before going to the airport. Long lines formed at the airline’s customer services desk inside Heathrow Terminal 1, which was staffed by three employees.

EasyJet Plc, Europe’s second-largest low-fare operation, advised passengers on its website to check in as normal as “the situation can improve.”

Departures from Luton airport were delayed by about an hour, a spokesman said. Stansted flights were delayed by “a couple of hours,” said Mark Davison, a spokesman.

Technicians were able to divide up air traffic sectors this morning to increase the number of flights, Eurocontrol said on its website. Delays remained high as of 7:20 p.m. Eurocontrol said on its website.

Fewer Flights

NATS said the Swanwick center had difficulty switching from its nighttime to daytime operations early today, according to a statement on its website. NATS was processing around 20 percent fewer flights than normal for a Saturday, according to Paul Beauchamp, a spokesman for the Fareham, England-based company.

“The reduction in capacity has had a disproportionate effect on southern England because it is extremely complex and busy airspace,” NATS said in the statement. The affected system is “very complex” with more than one million lines of software, it said.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman, who asked not to be identified citing agency policy, said it was working with NATS to make sure it understands what happened and to ensure the service is working to resolve the issue.

Flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol were among those affected, with the Dutch airport receiving fewer aircraft from the U.K., Brit Wijkniet, a spokeswoman for Schiphol, said by phone.

Some pilots were being advised to fly lower to reduce delays, Eurocontrol said. The airspace controlled by Swanwick covers the southern U.K. and extends west to Ireland, according to a spokesman for NATS.

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