The NATS blame game commences

The UK CAA says that it is launching an investigation into the system failure at National Air Traffic Services (NATS) that resulted in more than 1,500 flight cancellations at the end of August.

Meanwhile, airlines are calling for compensation from the UK air traffic service provider after having lost a combined £100m due to cancelled flights and extra costs borne from the outage. The system failure at NATS was apparently caused by the filing of a flight plan that included duplicated waypoint identifier codes, causing not only the primary system to fail but also its backup.

Willie Walsh, director general of the International Airline Transport Association (IATA) called the outage “staggering” and has said that “NATS has crucial questions to answer about their responsibility for this fiasco”. Walsh added: “The failure of this essential service is unacceptable and brings into question the oversight of the CAA who are required to review the NATS resilience plan under the terms of its licence.

“This incident is yet another example of why the passenger rights system isn’t fit for purpose. Airlines will bear significant sums in care and assistance charges, on top of the costs of disruption to crew and aircraft schedules. But it will cost NATS nothing. The UK’s policy makers should take note. The passenger rights system needs to be rebalanced to be fair for all with effective incentives. Until that happens, I fear we will see a continuing failure to improve the reliability, cost efficiency, and environmental performance of air traffic control. The current system does not protect passengers. It hurts them.”

Ryanair also weighed in, stating that NATS’ claim of 1,500 flight cancellations was incorrect, citing Eurocontrol’s figures of over 2,000 fewer flights over the UK that day. Ryanair also rejected NATS claim that 575 flights were delayed, stating that more than 1,000 Ryanair flights alone were impacted by the outage.

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary said: “This Preliminary NATS Report is factually inaccurate. It ridiculously understates the number of flights that were cancelled or delayed through the NATS system failure on Monday 28 Aug last. In Ryanair’s case, we suffered over 370 flight cancellations (over 63,000 passengers), and more than 1,500 flight delays over the two days (Mon & Tues over 270,000 passengers delayed). This whitewash report, which understates the number of flights cancellations and flight delays, fails to explain why one inaccurate flight plan brought down not just the NATS ATC system, but also the backup system.”

Ryanair also rejected NATS’ claim that it is not within its remit to provide cost reimbursement to customers: “Ryanair pays NATS almost €100m p.a. for an ATC service that is repeatedly short staffed and on 28 August collapsed altogether. The least NATS could and should do is to reimburse its airline customers for the tens of millions of pounds they have spent reimbursing passengers for their hotel, meals and transport expenses, which were entirely due to NATS system failure, and NATS backup system failure.”

Other industry representatives have claimed that the failure could have been prevented if NATS was better funded, pointing to large dividend payouts to its shareholders over the last couple of decades following its part privatisation that has left the air navigation service provider under resourced.

NATS’ chief shareholder is UK Government which owns 49%, while 42% is owned by a conglomerate comprised of BA and easyJet under the guise of The Airline Group, as well as the Pension Protection Fund and the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The remaining nine percent is split between Heathrow and NATS, while Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa also have small shareholdings.

In 2001, the Government of the time part privatised NATS, taking £758m in the deal, selling an initial 46% to The Airline Group. However, according to a report in the Telegraph, a 2003 Commons public accounts committee report showed that The Airline Group only paid £65m for their 46% stake, while the remaining £693m paid to Government for the sale came in the form of a bank loan that NATS ended up being liable to repay.

In subsequent years, hundreds of millions more in dividends have continued to be paid out, exacerbated by an alleged unwillingness of the CAA to approve budget plans to a level that NATS deemed necessary.  While the CAA’s investigation is expected to reveal the technical faults that brought about the failure; industry observers say that a more valuable lesson appears yet to be learned – namely that Government, and airlines, should not be using critical aviation safety infrastructure as a revenue resource.

Image accredited to NATS and NATS media centre

Author: FTN Editor

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