Britain's Heathrow airport recovers after flight chaos caused by computer glitch

Aircraft taxi next to the control tower at Heathrow airport in London on Dec 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Aircraft taxi next to the control tower at Heathrow airport in London on Dec 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Heathrow Airport cancelled 38 flights on Saturday as it recovered from a computer glitch that wreaked havoc with the London airport system, the world's busiest hub.

"There are 38 flights cancelled today as a result of yesterday (computer fault)," said a Heathrow spokesman, adding that 1,300 flights were scheduled Saturday to and from the airport.

"But we started up very well this morning, so I'm hoping after that we'll get back to normal," he said, adding that most of the cancellations were caused by air crews becoming stuck in the wrong place. He urged passengers to check with their airlines before going to the airport.

A computer failure at the state-of-the-art £700-million (S$1.45-billion) Swanwick control centre near Portsmouth on the southern English coast briefly shut down Britain's skies on Friday.

Departures were blocked for more than an hour on Friday and arrivals diverted when NATS, Britain's main air navigation service, restricted traffic volumes.

In a statement released Saturday, NATS said the problem occurred when trying to switch workstations between the “standby” and “on” states. “In this instance a transition between the two states caused a failure in the system which has not been seen before,” it said.

“The failure meant that the controllers were unable to access all of the data regarding individual flight plans which significantly increases their workload.

“The controllers had a full radar picture and full communications with all aircraft at all times during the incident and at no time was safety compromised in any way,” it added. Despite having full radar capabilities, NATS “immediately took steps to reduce the traffic into and out of the UK network” in order to “maintain a safe operation for the flying public.” 

The London airports system, including airports such as Gatwick, Stansted and Luton, is the busiest hub in the world with around 135 million passengers a year.

London's Heathrow alone is Europe's busiest in terms of passenger numbers, and the world's busiest for international passenger traffic.

British media reported that there had been a "radar display issue".

Hundreds of flights in Britain and Ireland were delayed or cancelled last year due to a similar problem.

Transport minister Patrick McLoughlin called the disruption "simply unacceptable" and said he had asked NATS for a full explanation.

"I also want to know what steps will be taken to prevent this happening again," he added.