3 June 2004 A computer failure at the UK’s air traffic control centre temporarily grounded nearly all aircraft at British airports.
The troubled National Air Traffic Services (NATS) Flight Data Processing System failed at around 5.45am. Airspace was reopened at 7.30am, but delays have persisted throughout the day and the disruption is expected to last into Friday.
NATS staff at the centre had to resort to guiding planes in manually in the absence of adequate business continuity systems — a more time-consuming process and one fraught with increased risks.
The £623 million system failed when it was restarted after an overnight upgrade. A spokesman said the problem was caused by a fault in the “flow of data” from a mainframe in West Drayton to the Swanick centre. The mainframe, which controls takeoff and landing, uses software dating back to the 1970s whereas the Swanick system, which handles aircraft at a higher altitude, is only a few years old; problems can occur when the two try to communicate, technicians said.
Perhaps optimistically, given NATS’ track record, the spokesman insisted the system “is not going to go down again”.
NATS, developed by Lockheed Martin, was delivered six years late and has experienced persistent problems since its opening in January 2002. Air traffic controllers initially complained that the screens initially were too small; a radar failure occurred in May 2002, also following an upgrade; and in January 2004 the NATS system was blamed for nearly causing a mid-air collision of two planes over Wales.