Gatwick air traffic control disruption: What is happening and why?

On Thursday 15 September dozens more flights and thousands more passengers faced cancellations, long delays and diversions due to air-traffic control staff sickness at London Gatwick airport.

The Sussex airport normally has the busiest runway in the world. But for passengers and airlines using Gatwick, it was the third failure involving the air traffic control service, Nats, in 18 days.

One Tui passenger from Kefalonia to Gatwick, Richard Leadbetter, told The Independent: “Just as we thought we were coming into land at Gatwick the pilot tells us we’ve been diverted and are landing at Bournemouth. We then sat in the plane for three and a half hours. A complete and utter shambles: got home to Tunbridge Wells at midnight instead of 6pm.”

As travellers try to rescue their travel plans, the chief executives of Europe’s biggest budget carriers, easyJet and Ryanair, are demanding action to avoid a repeat. Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary has called on the head of Nats to resign “and hand the job over to someone competent enough to do it”.

So what went wrong – and could it happen again? These are the key questions and answers.

What was the problem – and the effect?

On Thursday afternoon one of the three controllers working in the Gatwick control tower fell sick. The “short-notice staff absence”, as it was described, caused “temporary air traffic control restrictions” that reduced the rate at which incoming aircraft could land.

Gatwick has the busiest runway in the world, and any reduction in the “flow rate” of arrivals has an immediate effect.

At least 15 flights were diverted to airports as far away as Brussels and Cardiff, while dozens more were cancelled or heavily delayed. In total, at least 5,000 people began Friday a long way from where they intended to be.

Has the issue been resolved?

Late on Thursday night the airport said an additional air-traffic controller was “in place”, with restrictions easing and more aircraft able to arrive and depart. The impact continued into Friday, however, due to pilots, cabin crew and planes being out of position or out of hours.

Passengers awaiting an easyJet departure to the Isle of Man were told: “We’re sorry that your flight is delayed. Your plane was delayed on the previous flight because of air traffic control restrictions.”

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What does Nats say?

Nats, the air-traffic control service provider, has already accepted responsibility for the complete UK-wide failure of its IT system due to an anomalous flight plan on August bank holiday Monday. At Gatwick, a near-identical staff shortage situation eight days earlier resulted in a similar degree of mayhem, again with thousands of travellers affected.

After the latest bout of disruption, an Nats spokesperson said: “We apologise very sincerely to everyone who has been inconvenienced.

“We are working closely with Gatwick Airport Ltd to build resilience in the airport’s control tower to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum.

“New air traffic controllers have been recruited since last summer, increasing our presence by 17 per cent, and others are due to start after completing their training, in line with the agreed plan when Nats took over the contract last October.”

Can’t they just bring someone in from another airport?

No. Each airport has its own stringent training requirements.

What do the airlines say?

Just because the problem was caused by Nats, the impact falls on airlines and their passengers. When an airline cancels a flight for any reason, it must provide hotel rooms for passengers, and source and pay for alternative flights.

The airlines are collectively furious that there is not better protection of the world’s busiest runway. Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the industry body representing UK-registered carriers, said: “The delays we are seeing at Gatwick are not acceptable and the travelling public deserve better.

“Nats consistently reassured airlines, airports and the government that it could deliver this summer. This was clearly not the case.

“This latest round of disruption cannot go on and there needs to be a deep review of how Nats works to ensure that it delivers robust and resilient services for the UK public.”

Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, called on the Nats CEO, Martin Rolfe, to resign “and hand the job over to someone competent enough to do it”. He said: “Airlines are paying millions of pounds to Nats each and every year and should not have to see their passengers suffer avoidable delays due to UK ATC [air traffic control] staff shortages.”

Johan Lundgren, chief executive of easyJet, said: “Persistent staff shortages at Nats have plagued the industry and repeatedly let down customers all summer, having caused more than a month’s worth of disruption.

“This cannot be allowed to continue. Immediate action must be taken to fix the staffing shortages.”

Is it going to happen again next week?

I asked Nats just that and was told: “We are working closely with Gatwick Airport Ltd to build resilience and are working to the plan agreed with them when we took over the contract in October 2022.”

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