Preliminary assessment of the UK air traffic control failure of 28 August indicates it related to flight data the air navigation service NATS received, and was not the result of a cyberattack.

But airline representatives are demanding an overhaul of passenger rights legislation after arguing that, unlike carriers, NATS is not being financially penalised – despite its system being at the centre of the crisis.

NATS is preparing a preliminary report on the incident which it intends to deliver to the UK transport secretary by 4 September.

“At no point was UK airspace closed but the number of flights was significantly reduced,” says NATS chief Martin Rolfe.

“Initial investigations into the problem show it relates to some of the flight data we received. Our systems, both primary and the back-ups, responded by suspending automatic processing to ensure that no incorrect safety-related information could be presented to an air traffic controller or impact the rest of the air traffic system.”

Gatwick tower-c-NATS

Source: NATS

UK airports were badly affected by traffic-flow restrictions imposed after the failure

The systems have been running normally since the issue was addressed but disruption to a number of flight schedules has yet to be fully resolved.

UK transport secretary Mark Harper says the disruption is “likely to continue over the coming days”, and adds that the government is relaxing rules on night flights to assist carriers dealing with delayed passengers.

While the situation is likely to be categorised as an ‘extraordinary circumstance’, which would remove any airline obligation to compensate passengers for delays, carriers have nevertheless had to bear the cost of care and assistance to customers.

IATA director general Willie Walsh describes the air traffic system failure as a “fiasco” but points out that it will “cost NATS nothing”.

“This incident is yet another example of why the passenger rights system isn’t fit for purpose,” says Walsh.

“The UK’s policy-makers should take note. The passenger rights system needs to be rebalanced to be fair for all with effective incentives.”

Walsh insists NATS has “crucial questions to answer” regarding its responsibility for the “meltdown”.

He says the air traffic system failure is “unacceptable” and queries the adequacy of Civil Aviation Authority oversight, given that the regulator has to review NATS resilience plans.