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British air traffic control system failure. We found out its cause

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The head of Britain’s air traffic control system said the failure of the air traffic control system in late August was the result of an error that had a “one in 15 million chance of occurring.”

On August 28, 2023, the British air traffic control system failed. As a result, over 1,500 flights were canceled. Nats, the company responsible for air traffic control, told the BBC that there was an error that had never occurred before. The system shut down after receiving very unusual duplicate “tags” for scheduled flights.

Read also: More than 1,500 flights were canceled. “My obligations are ruined”

“The system did what it was designed to do.”

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Martin Rolfe, president of the Nats, said the chances of this error occurring were 1 in 15 million. So it took engineers several hours to figure out what actually happened.

After this extremely rare error occurred, part of the UK’s air traffic control system shut down automatically within just a few seconds. Martin Rolfe said the system did “what it was designed to do, which is to crash safely when it receives data it cannot process.”

Nats, formerly known as the National Air Traffic Services, said it had taken action to prevent a repeat of the situation.

The UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), has also announced an independent review, which is due in a few months. The watchdog said it could take action if Nats breaches “statutory and licensing obligations”.

Double flight caused failure

Airlines submit each flight route to the national control center; these should be automatically shared with Nats controllers who oversee UK airspace.

In its initial report published on Wednesday, Nats said that at 08:32 on August 28, its system received details of a flight that was scheduled to pass through British airspace later that day.

The system detected that two markers on the planned route had the same name – even though they were in different places. This caused the system to automatically stop working for safety reasons to ensure that Nats air traffic controllers did not transmit any incorrect information. Then the backup system did the same.

London airportShutterstock

This all happened in just 20 seconds. Engineers could not solve the problem and turned to the manufacturer for help.

Rolfe said this was the first time such an error had occurred in the software’s five years of operation, after processing more than 15 million flight plans. In an interview with the BBC Today program, he again apologized to customers affected by the holidays. “We fully understand how devastating the events that took place over the bank holiday were for people,” Rolfe said.

60 flights per hour instead of the usual 400

For a time, flight plans had to be processed manually, which meant limits on the number of aircraft handled. At one point only 60 flights per hour could be handled, down from the standard figure of 400.

The system returned to operation just before 2.30pm UK time. However, it was not until just after 6 p.m. that air traffic restrictions were completely lifted.

Nats says the software update will mean the system will no longer respond in the same way as before if the same thing happens again.

– We were in a situation where there were thousands of flights in the air and we received data that our systems were unable to process. If something like this happened today, we would certainly be able to cope with the situation, Rolfe told the BBC.

Both Nats and CAA say there was no flight safety risk.

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