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UK air traffic chaos: easyJet lays on flights for stranded customers

EasyJet has begun the repatriation of customers stranded by Monday’s collapse of the UK’s air traffic control system, with five flights scheduled to bring customers back to Gatwick airport, as airlines estimated the failure could cost them up to £100m.

Airlines are facing costs “in the tens of millions”, according to Willie Walsh, the former chief executive of British Airways, who is now the director general of theInternational Air Transport Association, as disruption extended into the third day.

“I would imagine at an industry level we’ll be getting close to £100m of additional costs that airlines have encountered as a result of this failure,” Walsh told the BBC, although he cautioned it was too early to determine the eventual cost.

The chief executive of the air traffic control service Nats (formerly National Air Traffic Services), Martin Rolfe, confirmed the chaos was caused when part of the system collapsed on Monday because it “didn’t recognise a message”.

Rolfe’s comments appear to confirm claims by unnamed sources, reported by the Independent on Tuesday, that the failure was triggered when a French airline submitted a “dodgy” flight plan the system could not process.

Walsh said the outage led to the cancellation of about 1,100 flights to and from four UK airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester – on Monday, affecting the journeys of hundreds of thousands of passengers. He said Nats had questions to answer, adding it was “staggering” that a single piece of data could have been at fault.

The airlines are not hopeful that they will be able to recoup any of their costs from Nats, according to Walsh.

“This is what really frustrates and angers airlines. This was completely outside the control of the airlines and yet airlines are subject to paying customers for delays, for cancellations, for looking after them, which is very considerable,” he said.

“It’s very unfair because the air traffic control system, which was at the heart of this failure, doesn’t pay a single penny.”

Rolfe apologised to affected passengers and said the company did not underestimate the impact of the outage.

“We worked absolutely as quickly as we could to make sure we could safely restore the service,” Rolfe told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Almost all the time it handles it absolutely perfectly. In fact, this is staggering, in the sense that it is incredibly rare. And we make it our business to make sure it is incredibly rare.”

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Asked why the flight data that caused widespread cancellations was not rejected “like a piece of spam”, Rolfe said: “Our systems are safety-critical systems; they are dealing with the lives of passengers and the travelling public. So even things like just throwing data away needs to be very carefully considered.

“If you throw away a critical piece of data, you may end up in the next 30 seconds, a minute or an hour with something that then is not right on the screens in front of the controller.”

EasyJet said the first of its two repatriation flights would depart the UK on Wednesday to collect passengers from Palma in Mallorca and Faro in Portugal. These will be followed by flights to Tenerife in the Canary Islands in Spain and Enfidha in Tunisia on Thursday, and the Greek island of Rhodes on Friday.

The airline said: “During this traditionally very busy week for travel, options for returning to the UK are more limited on some routes.”

It added that it was operating larger aircraft on popular routes including Faro, Ibiza, Dalaman and Tenerife to provide approximately 700 additional seats this week.

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