Inquiry Into Airport Delays After Fault At Swanwick

15 December 2014, 06:33 | Updated: 15 December 2014, 06:37

An independent inquiry will be established following an unprecedented systems failure at the UK's national air traffic control centre in Hampshire, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has said.

The problem, involving computer code written a quarter of a century ago, was responsible for widespread disruption at British airports.

Passengers faced travel chaos as dozens of flights at airports around the country were disrupted or cancelled on Friday and early Saturday.

Richard Deakin, chief executive of Nats, the company responsible for controlling British airspace, said the software glitch was ''buried'' among millions of lines of code at the site in Swanwick, near Fareham.

The CAA and Nats have agreed to the establishment of an independent inquiry following the disruption ``caused by the failure in air traffic management systems''.

In a statement, the CAA said: ``The CAA will, in consultation with Nats, appoint an independent chair of the panel which will consist of Nats technical experts, a board member from the CAA and independent experts on information technology, air traffic management and operational resilience.''

It said the full terms of reference will be published following consultation with ``interested parties including airlines and consumer groups''.

The review will cover the root causes of the incident on Friday and Nats' handling of that incident to minimise disruption without compromising safety.

It will also cover whether the lessons identified in the review of the disruption in December 2013 have been ``fully embedded and were effective in this most recent incident''.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the CAA said the Nats report about the incident last December, in which flights were delayed and cancelled due to a technical problem, lacked clarity.

''We asked them to do a little bit more work on it,'' he said, adding that Nats has said this latest incident is unrelated to what caused the disruption last December.

''We said to Nats that the report that they had produced as a result of their investigation into the December failing in 2013 lacked clarity ... and subsequently there was more work done on that,'' he added.

This new inquiry about the latest incident will include a ``review of the levels of resilience and service that should be expected across the air traffic network taking into account relevant international benchmarks''.

It will also cover ``further measures to avoid technology or process failures in this critical national infrastructure and reduce the impact of any unavoidable disruption''.

Meanwhile, Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, has spoken out about Mr Deakin's role.

He told The Sunday Times: ''I hope after the chaos, which was dreadful, though a rare event, he will have his bonuses stripped from him.''

Mr Deakin earns more than #1 million after receiving a 45% pay rise this year, according to The Sunday Times.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin described the disruption as unacceptable, and MP Louise Ellman, chairwoman of the Transport Committee, said Mr McLoughlin will be asked about the incident when he appears before the panel today.

Mr Deakin previously told the BBC: ''The problem was when we had additional terminals brought into use and we had a software problem that we haven't seen before which resulted in the computer which looks after the flight plans effectively going off line.

''The good news is of course that everything came back online 45 minutes later, the back-up plans went into action as they should have done, so everything performed normally there, the skies were kept safe.

''Unfortunately there was reduced capacity and I would just like to reiterate our apology that we have made to passengers and indeed to airlines and airport customers for the disruption that was caused.

''But I think the key message is that the skies were kept absolutely safe during that 45 minutes of problems that we experienced at Swanwick.''

Mr Deakin added that it was a ''very unusual event'' which had not occurred before.

He said: ''The challenge is that we have around 50 different systems at Swanwick and around four million lines of code. This particular glitch was buried in one of those four million lines of code.''

Mr Deakin said the problem had been ''effectively rectified'' and gave assurances that it would not reoccur.

He conceded that some of their systems were ''fairly elderly'', adding: ''The system we had a problem with last night has code written in the early '90s.''

Nats is investing a ''huge amount'' in new technology, Mr Deakin said, with #575 million set to be spent over the next five years to move towards more resilient, internet-based systems.

Nats said it understood the problem was connected to a number of workstations ''in a certain state'' combined with the number of ''air space sectors'' open.

Officials restricted air space in response to the issue, leaving flights at some airports grounded on Friday.

Nats declared that its systems were back to full operational capacity on Friday night, but a knock-on effect was seen at airports on Saturday.