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Monday, 15 December 2014 06:00

Flight Delays Highlight Bigger Problems

Written by  Vicki Thomas

Heathrow-AirportOn December 12, the air above and around London literally stood still…With the stoppage of flights in and out of Heathrow airport, Gatwick airport and other airports in the United Kingdom, the constant flight traffic revealed silence and amazing views.

This silence and the views are likely the only upsides for many people who were impacted by the flight stoppages at one of the world’s major air traffic hubs. The culprit in these flight stoppages and delays turns out to be an out-of-date computer system.

A computer system failure at the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) company headquarters in Swanwick, Hampshire, England is being blamed for stranding 10,000 passengers and resulting in the rescheduling and delay of numerous flights.

Among questions about how a computer system designed to manage air traffic could possibly fail are also questions about how NATS is being run and operated. This disruption in air travel has caused the public and media to question the out-of-date computer system being used, the recent bonuses paid to NATS executives, and has in general placed the beleaguered airline industry in the spotlight.

From a business continuity perspective this disruption to air travel in and out of the United Kingdom highlights a number of interesting trickle-down effects of a disruption:

  • Angry travellers who are demanding compensation from airlines: results in poor public relations at a time when airlines are under constant scrutiny for prices and service. Do the airlines and the airpot have communication plans in place to effectively respond to the backlash that is coming from social media, online news, radio, television and consumer posts on websites?
  • Finger-pointing and blame towards the people running the computer system for NATS: everyone wants to determine who is at fault and to do this quickly. The result being in this case that news media, government officials and consumers are questioning the bonuses paid to NATS executives and questioning if these people should still have jobs. Does NATS has a plan for responding to such public and professional stress? What is the plan in place to assuage fears that this could happen again?
  • Questions are being asked about the computer system being used to manage and operate one of the largest air traffic hubs in the world: people want to know a system that was designed in the 1960s is still being used. Does NATS have a business continuity plan that includes IT infrastructure back-up plans, computer failover plans, emergency call lists in the event the system goes off-line and a plan to restore the system?

(From Air traffic meltdown caused by unprecedented computer failure, The Telegraph)

MP Louise Ellman, chair of the Transport Committee, said Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will be asked about the incident when he appears before the panel on Monday.

She said: "I am very concerned about this major breakdown in UK air traffic control and the impact of the disruption this failure has caused on airports, airlines and passengers.

"In such circumstances safety remains paramount, but going forward it is vital that we establish what happened, and what NATS must do in order to ensure the same problem does not recur in future.

"I also hope that the committee will call NATS and the CAA to give evidence to us, so that we can get to the bottom of what led up to this weekend's events.

While flights have now resumed and most people were fortunate enough to get to their ultimate destination, the fall-out from a rather short disruption will have long-lasting effects. As a business continuity professional, consider these statements:

(From Air traffic meltdown caused by unprecedented computer failure, The Telegraph)

Former air traffic controller for NATS, Martin Clipp, blames cost-cutting for a lack of investment in the systems.

"The system runs pretty much at full pelt, we have 99 per cent capacity at Heathrow, that means if the slightest thing goes wrong the effects, the ripples going out are enormous," he said.

"If you do not invest - and they are not allowed to invest - in my view and in a lot of other controllers' views, it is something for nothing. You get what you pay for.

Former transport minister Stephen Hammond said: "There needs to be a full, quick investigation and we need to have a plan in place to rectify it and have that ready for next week.

At first glance this makes one believe that chaos is the central theme at NATS and within the transport department. One wonders what if any plans were in place before Dec. 12 and the actual effectiveness of the BC/DR plans that will be put in place.

As we know, rash decision-making is not effective when it comes to BC/DR planning. Fingers crossed that NATS does not ever actually need to rely on the plan that it does develop in the short time frame demanded by transport minister Stephen Hammond

“…we need to have a plan in place to rectify it and have that ready for next week.

As a business continuity professional, what are your recommendations for NATS, the airlines and airport authority?

To read more about the air traffic disruption and fall-out: