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When a single piece of faulty data can bring operations of one of the world’s busiest air transportation systems to a grinding halt, as happened in the United Kingdom this week, it is cause for both worry and introspection.
The UK’s National Air Traffic Services, responsible for regulating air traffic over the country’s skies, has confirmed that more than 1,000 departures and nearly as many arriving flights were cancelled over three days leading to losses of more than 100 million pounds. But more than the monetary losses, the cancellations occurred at one of the busiest times in the year, throwing holiday plans of many Britons out of kilter. There is a lot at stake, with complex air traffic control systems handling more than 2 million flights each year, and the authority is vested with the task of ensuring that a systems glitch does not endanger human life. While authorities are investigating the cause of the glitch, initial reports suggest that it occurred after a French airline misfiled its flight plan. If this is correct, it shows just how vulnerable the complex air traffic control systems around the world are to even single errors.
What the glitch did was to stop the automatic processing of flight plans, forcing officials to enter data manually, a process that is considerably slower. Authorities say the problem has been resolved, but the after effects of the initial disruption are still being felt, with airports across the United Kingdom cancelling or delaying several flights even on Wednesday. The number of scheduled flights over the holiday weekend this year were 10 per cent higher this year than in 2022, and 83 per cent more than in 2021 when the pandemic had severely disrupted air travel. Every day, airports in the United Kingdom see more than 3,000 arrivals and as many departures.
The disruptions coming nearly a decade after air operations were hit by a systems fault at NATS’ operations centre at Swanwick will mean heavy losses for airlines, as they are required to ensure that passengers unable to travel are fed and sometimes accommodated overnight before they can resume their journeys.
The airline industry, which has started to recover after the disruptions caused by Covid, can ill-afford such a strain on its resources. While British Airways reported record profits for the first half of 2023, this came on the back of losses the previous year. Virgin Atlantic has still not turned the corner and the airline has projected profits only in 2024. Budget carriers such as EasyJet are better off, but even they will feel the impact of cancelled flights and the resultant disruptions. While the worst may be behind Britain’s air traffic controllers, analysts warn that ripple effects will continue to be felt for several days.