Hundreds of thousands of airline passengers face potential delays and cancellations on one of the busiest days of the year after the failure of air traffic control.
The Independent understands that the main control system belonging to Nats, the national air-traffic service, has failed. The organisation is based at Swanwick in Hampshire.
Aircraft on the ground are being held. Planes already in the air are likely to be diverted to airports on the continent.
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Even if the fault is dealt with swiftly, disruption is expected for the rest of the day. UK aviation today is working at full stretch, with very little slack in the system particularly at Heathrow and Gatwick – respectively the busiest two-runway airport in the world and busiest single-runway airport.
Hundreds of thousands of passengers are due to be flying into the UK many of them families finishing their summer holidays in the Mediterranean and beyond.
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NATS, the national air traffic controllers, said in a statement: “We are currently experiencing a technical issue and have applied traffic flow restrictions to maintain safety. Engineers are working to find and the fix the fault.
“We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.”
Europe’s air traffic control agency, Eurocontrol, says Britain is “experiencing a flight data processing system failure” causing “very high” delays.
Gatwick Airport have issued a statement to say that cancellations are “likely” due to the air traffic issue. “We are aware NATS is currently experiencing a technical issue,” they said. “We are seeing delays, and cancellations are likely.
“We apologise for any inconvenience and ask you contact your airline for further information.”
Flights are likely to be diverted to continental airports such as Amsterdam or a location in Ireland. The technical difficulties facing air traffic control would not cause safety issues as the system has been designed to cope with a shutdown, and aircraft carry contingency fuel.
Airline Loganair posted on X, formerly known as Twitter: “There has been a network-wide failure of UK air traffic control computer systems this morning.
“Although we are hopeful of being able to operate most intra-Scotland flights on the basis of local coordination and with a minimum of disruption, north-south and international flights maybe subject to delays.
“If you are flying with us today, please check our website for the latest information about your flight before setting off for the airport.”
A message sent to travellers from EasyJet, said: “We have been advised of an air traffic control issue currently affecting all flights due to fly into or out of United Kingdom airspace.
“We are working with the relevant authorities to understand the impact of this issue and the timescale for normal operations to resume.
“If you are already onboard one of our places waiting to take off then our crew will keep you updated.
“If you are in one of our airports waiting to board then please continue to check the flight information screens in the terminals.”
The company added: “Whilst this disruption is outside of our control we sincerely apologise for the disruption to your travel plans today”.
Meanwhile, Dublin Airport. Belfast Airport and Edinburgh Airport have warned passengers to check the status of their flights and to liaise with their airlines with delays expected.
Michele Robson, who used to work in air traffic control, said that it was “unusual” for failures to last this long.
She told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme: “There was a flight planning system failure this morning which affected both centres in the UK.”
Speaking from Jersey Airport while waiting to fly to London, she said: “Now they have enough data for four hours for controllers to work normally. After that point, they have to go manual which means that they work at a much slower rate so they can handle far less aircraft.
“So it looks like there’s been what they would call a zero rate put on, where it means that no aircraft can take off inbound to the UK or probably outbound. It would generally be them trying to land things that were already in the air.”
Speaking to The Independent, Erica Francker said that she and a group of students were stuck in Marseille and have been informed their earliest slot for departure is 7pm.
She said: “We’ll get vouchers, which are £3 to £4.50 for EasyJet, for food after three hours delay, but we’re also told to not leave the gate for too long. We also have members with a limited diet who might not be able to find suitable food for a reasonable sum. We also can’t leave the airport.
“The issue is also crew time, as by the time we’re ready to go, the crew will have worked too long and a new crew will have to be switched in. And as this is happening nationwide, the vibes here is that the flight will be cancelled.”
Gordon Wheeler said that his daughter, her partner and two young children were stuck in Alicante, having already had their original EasyJet flight cancelled last Thursday.
They have had to pay for emergency accommodation and food for four days, and are now facing further delays which means their five-year-old son is likely to miss his birthday party tomorrow.
One passenger said that they were being held on the tarmac in Palma, Mallorca, since 11am and had been informed by the captain that only 300 planes per hour could land in the UK due to ongoing issues.
Another woman is currently stuck in Montenegro with a 13-month-old baby, while another family with two young children have been told they are facing a 12-hour delay in Rome.
Broadcaster Gabby Logan is among those stuck on a flight after being informed that UK airspace is “shut”.
She tweeted: “On a plane on the runway at Budapest airport. After almost 3 weeks away from home I am hours from hugging my family. And have just been told UK airspace is shut. We could be here for 12 hours. So we sit on the plane and wait.”
More follows on this breaking news story