SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) A computer failure that led to southern England being closed to air traffic on Friday could be repeated because software used to control flights dates from the 1960s, it has emerged.
Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, demanded answers from the air traffic control service Nats after the glitch led to “unacceptable” flight cancellations and delays for 10,000 passengers.
Airspace over London and the South East was closed for 36 minutes yesterday afternoon, leading to a backlog that could take until this afternoon to clear.
Mr McLoughlin said: “Any disruption to our aviation system is a matter of the utmost concern, especially at this time of year in the run up to the holiday season.
“Disruption on this scale is simply unacceptable and I have asked Nats for a full explanation of this evening’s incident. I also want to know what steps will be taken to prevent this happening again.”
It is just the latest in a string of computer problems that have plagued Nats in recent years at its headquarters in Swanwick, Hants.
A consultant who has worked for Nats said it knew its software needed to be replaced a decade ago but will be relying on the 1960s programmes for another two years.
Martyn Thomas, Visiting Professor of Software Engineering at the University of Oxford, said: “The National Airspace System that performs flight data processing was originally written for American airspace in the late 1960s.
“It wasn’t designed to cope with the volume of air traffic we have today, or to interface with modern computer software.”
Prof Thomas said the NAS system was written using a now defunct computer language called Jovial, meaning Nats has to train programmers in Jovial just to maintain the antiquated software.
He said: “When Swanwick opened in 2002 there were a number of failures because as air traffic grew NAS wasn’t able to handle the additional complexity and the extra information they were having to put in.
“Some of the other software they use dates back to the 1980s, and they knew a decade ago that it needed replacing, but they haven’t made it a priority.
“Britain is now the only country that is using the 1960s software. It is due to be replaced with a new system from a Spanish company in about two years, but until then they will just have to manage.”
Heathrow, the country’s busiest airport, had to cancel 50 flights, with around 20 more scrapped at Stansted and dozens more delayed or diverted to airports in Europe from Gatwick, London City and Luton. Delays were also reported at Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
Passengers left stranded included Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, who was on his way to Vilnius in Lithuania to make a speech when his flight was delayed at Stansted Airport in Essex.
He said: “I don’t know what is going on – there’s a lack of information. Economically it is a catastrophe for the country.
“We are an international trading nation, and this is bad. It’s really not good.”
It was the second major computer failure in 12 months at the £700 million Nats facility, which opened five years late in 2002 and cost more than five times the original budget.
Last December another computer failure meant Nats had to reduce flights by 20 per cent on a busy Saturday, leading to major disruption.
The Swanwick centre controls all flights south of Manchester, meaning incoming flights were grounded at most European airports and aircraft already in the air had to land in other countries. Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street communications secretary, was among passengers who unexpectedly found themselves in Paris because of London airspace being closed.
The computer error lasted from 3.27pm to 4.03pm, and Nats said that while it had not been caused by a power cut, it was too early to say exactly which system failed.
A spokesman said: “As with any safety-critical industry, we will have to have a full investigation to determine the exact cause.
“We need to see if there are any other systems or underlying root causes that haven’t been addressed today, so we cannot speculate on whether it might happen again.”
A spokesman for Heathrow Airport said: “The earlier problem will cause delays and cancellations to flights for the rest of the day and is likely to have a knock-on effect on some services tomorrow because aircraft and crew will now be out of position.
“Passengers due to depart today and tomorrow should check the status of their flight with their airline before travelling to Heathrow. We are very sorry for the disruption to passengers’ journeys. We have extra staff on duty to help passengers.”