UK ATC Meltdown Raises NATS, CAA Oversight Questions, IATA Says

Stansted Airport
Credit: DANIEL LEAL / AFP / Getty Images

Following the Aug. 28 UK air traffic control (ATC) meltdown, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says the country’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) provider has “questions to answer” and is raising concerns over UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) oversight of NATS’ resilience plan. 

“NATS has crucial questions to answer about their responsibility for this fiasco,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said. “The failure of this essential service is unacceptable and brings into question the oversight of the CAA, who are required to review the NATS resilience plan under the terms of its license.” 

IATA’s statement came as some airlines were still suffering the after-effects of the technical issue, which left NATS’ automatic flight planning system not functioning and controllers processing flight details manually instead. For safety reasons, NATS had to limit the number of flights that could operate and hundreds of flights to and from UK destinations were canceled. 

Following a meeting with NATS, the CAA, and representatives from airlines, airports, trade bodies and the Border Force, UK transport secretary Mark Harper said Aug. 29 that he will review a report NATS will submit to the CAA in the coming days, while announcing that some night flights will be temporarily allowed to help airlines get passengers to their destinations as disruption continues. 

“Although the air traffic control system is back up and running, the knock-on effects of yesterday’s disruption are likely to continue over the coming days,” Harper said after the meeting. “The Department for Transport has put in place temporary alleviations to allow night flights at those airports it regulates. Airline and airport chief executives outlined that we are likely to see a continuation of some disruption in the coming days as they get affected passengers to their destinations, and crew and aircraft to the right locations.” 

CAA Interim-Joint Chief Executive Rob Bishton said, “As part of our regulatory oversight of its activities, we continue to engage with NATS and once its investigation is fully complete, an incident report will be provided to the UK Civil Aviation Authority. The report’s outcomes will then be shared with the secretary of state for transport.” 

Bishton said the CAA “understand[s] the challenges many consumers continue to experience when flights are delayed or canceled following yesterday’s technical issue that impacted [NATS’] flight planning system. Passengers who continue to be impacted can find information about what they are entitled to on our website. In the event of delays or cancellations, passengers will be expected to be provided with food and drink as well as accommodation if delayed overnight.”

In a video posted on NATS’ website in the evening of Aug. 28, Operations Director Juliet Kennedy said, “Our absolute priority is safety, and we will be investigating very thoroughly what happened today.”

But IATA’s Walsh offered a stern rebuke of the UK ATC provider. “Airlines will bear significant sums in care and assistance charges, on top of the costs of disruption to crew and aircraft schedules. But it will cost NATS nothing. The UK’s policymakers should take note,” Walsh said. “The passenger rights system needs to be rebalanced to be fair for all with effective incentives. Until that happens, I fear we will see a continuing failure to improve the reliability, cost efficiency, and environmental performance of air traffic control. The current system does not protect passengers. It hurts them.”  

London Gatwick, London Heathrow, and Manchester Airport posted notices on Aug. 29 alerting passengers of residual disruptions, delays and some flight cancellations.  

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.