LONDON, Sept 6 (Reuters) – An air traffic meltdown that hit Britain last week was caused by a “one in 15 million” event, the boss of traffic control provider NATS said, after it cited a flight plan with two identically named markers as the reason for the chaos.
Thousands of passengers were stranded abroad for days after 1,500 flights were cancelled on Aug. 28, during one of the busiest travel periods of the summer.
“This was a one in 15 million chance,” NATS CEO Martin Rolfe told the BBC.
“We’ve processed 15 million flight plans with this system up until this point and never seen this before.”
The NATS report published on Wednesday said the flight plan included two identically named but separate waypoint markers outside UK airspace, which forced the system to enter fail-safe mode.
“In these circumstances, the system could not reject the flight plan without a clear understanding of what possible impact it may have had. Nor could it be allowed through and risk presenting air traffic controllers with incorrect safety-critical information,” NATS said.
NATS said the flight plan was compliant with Eurocontrol’s flight planning distribution system.
Britain’s civil aviation regulator said it would review circumstances surrounding the failure.
“If there is evidence to suggest NATS may have breached its statutory and licensing obligations we will consider whether any further action is necessary,” Rob Bishton, Joint-Interim Chief Executive at the UK’s CAA, said in a statement.
That mean NATS could end up footing some of the bill for the chaos.
Airlines have said the episode could cost them up to 100 million pounds ($126 million) as passengers whose flights were cancelled will be able to claim back expenses for the hotels they stayed in or the new tickets they bought.
The head of NATS said the problem would not be repeated.
The CAA said the event was now understood and, if it happened again, should be fixed quickly with no effect to the aviation system.
($1 = 0.7961 pounds)