Ageing Computer System Blamed for Air Traffic Control Meltdown

Ageing Computer System Blamed for Air Traffic Control Meltdown


An air traffic control meltdown that led to widespread disruptions and potential chaos for passengers has been attributed to an ageing computer system.

The incident, which commenced on Monday, is believed to have been triggered by an erroneous flight plan request that contained an excessive number of dots.

This incorrect data caused the system to collapse, raising concerns about the reliability of the technology.

The Role of Data Formatting in the System Failure

Air traffic controllers rely on essential information for each flight to populate their displays accurately.

This includes details such as flight numbers, aircraft types, destinations, and routes.


If these data points are not properly spaced and formatted, the computer system fails to recognize the information, which can result in a complete breakdown.

Michele Robson, an experienced air traffic control professional, emphasized that failures in the past have often been linked to incorrect information inputted in the wrong format.

The system’s age and unique formatting requirements contribute to the potential for such failures.

Safety Considerations in System Management

Martin Rolfe, the CEO of National Air Traffic Services, underscored the critical nature of the systems used in air traffic control.

Safety remains a top priority, as these systems handle the lives of passengers and the traveling public.


Rejecting data, even seemingly incorrect data, is a complex decision due to the possible consequences.

Throwing away critical data could lead to errors in real-time control, posing risks to air traffic operations.

Impact and Aftermath of the System Failure

The system failure prompted a shift to manual operation, where flight plans had to be entered individually.

This labor-intensive process severely limited the capacity of air traffic controllers to manage the usual flow of flights in and out of UK airports.

Although the system was restored by Monday afternoon, the repercussions persisted, with numerous flights cancelled and passengers enduring hardships.


The disruption is estimated to cost airlines around £100 million.

The Complexity of System Upgrades and Replacement

The incident also raised questions about the age of the system and the frequency of updates.

The CEO of National Air Traffic Services clarified that the organization invests significantly in new systems, with an annual budget of £100 million.

Despite the complexity of the air traffic control system and its constant evaluation for updates, the failure highlighted the challenges of maintaining the technology’s reliability.

Ongoing Investigations and Accountability

The failure prompted inquiries into the causes and consequences of the meltdown.


Aviation experts and officials are examining the incident to understand its root causes and prevent future occurrences.

There is speculation that a French airline’s incorrect flight plan submission might have contributed to the failure.

National Air Traffic Services is collaborating with the Civil Aviation Authority to provide a preliminary report, and the results of the investigation will be made public.

In conclusion, the air traffic control meltdown attributed to an ageing computer system has highlighted the challenges of maintaining the reliability of critical technology in the aviation industry.

The incident underscores the need for ongoing investment and upgrades to ensure the safety and efficiency of air travel operations.


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