NATS controllers let down by telephone system failure

Gatwick air traffic control towerMost would agree that the invention of the telephone and the aeroplane are two of the most important technological advancements of the last 150 years.

But this weekend saw Alexander Graham Bell’s 1886 invention ground thousands of passengers in the UK.

Thousands of air passengers faced cancellations and long delays after the internal phone service of the UK’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS) broke down on Saturday morning, with the problems continuing into Sunday. 1,300 flights were affected (which equates to 8% of all European airline traffic).

The controllers at the NATS control centre in Hampshire use their telephone system to communicate important data about aircraft and process each flight that comes into UK airspace. The system is essential to their roles.

A different computer glitch at NATS also caused considerable delays last summer, so it’s not the first time that the UK’s air traffic controllers have been let down by technology.

Aviation technology has moved on rapidly since the Wright Brothers first took flight in 1903. This has been driven primarily by the world’s most stringent safety requirements in any industry.

Inside the aircraft, passengers are protected from vital equipment failures by independent backup systems. Every essential part of an aircraft has redundancy. Aircraft normally have 3 or more radios to speak to air traffic control (and modern aircraft also have sat phones). The fuel tanks, electrical generators, fire protection systems…and so on are all independently backed up. So if one goes, they don’t all fail.

Most businesses have contingency plans in place for communication failures so it not surprising that a number of industry commentators – including several of the airlines – have questioned why NATS don’t appear to. It’s somewhat surprising that something as well-established as a telephone system can bring down such an essential UK service.

It does also beg the question of the fragility of air traffic control systems. And whether they are susceptible to possible cyber attacks in the future.

The UK’s air traffic controllers are widely recognised as the best in the world. How much better could they be if they had the right technology for the the job?