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When Donal Mullane flew from London to Italy over the long August bank holiday weekend it was meant to be a short city break in Florence. But on Monday, when he was due to return, the UK’s air traffic control system all but shut down.
Like thousands of other passengers caught up in the resulting travel chaos after a technical failure grounded hundreds of flights, the 59-year-old had to wait days before getting home, eventually touching back down at Heathrow on Thursday afternoon.
Mullane, who works in financial services in London, now has to go through the drawn-out process of claiming a refund from British Airways to cover the extra expenses incurred on accommodation and food. He said he was determined to ensure he is not left “out of pocket”.
But what he won’t get back is the hours spent trying to rebook his flight via overworked call centres, nor is he entitled to compensation for lost earnings after his employer informed him his three-day absence from work would be treated as unpaid leave. “I have found the whole incident incredibly frustrating,” said Mullane.
The outage at National Air Traffic Services (Nats) last Monday was the worst in more than a decade and led to the cancellation of more than 2,000 flights over the past five days, with many more delayed.
While the exact cause is still being investigated — the suspected trigger is a flight plan message that the system did not recognise — airlines left dealing with the chaos are calling for a reform of compensation rules.
It has also led to a wider debate about consumer protection for air passengers and whether the aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, should be given greater powers.
Airlines have been left facing a bill as high as £100mn, according to some estimates, because passengers are allowed to claim the costs of extra accommodation and living expenses incurred as a result of a flight being cancelled.
In contrast Nats, which handles more than 2mn flights a year, said as it had an “obligation to ensure air traffic safety” it could by law “take appropriate measures to reduce traffic volumes when needed without incurring financial penalties.”
The agency, however, does have to meet certain performance criteria set by the CAA. It faces financial penalties if it falls below these: a less extensive outage in December 2014, for example, cost Nats £500,000.
“It’s very unfair because the air traffic control system, which was at the heart of this failure, doesn’t pay a single penny”, Willie Walsh, the head of the International Air Transport Association, the global airline trade body, said earlier this week.
Yet the relationship between Nats and its airline customers is complicated because some, including British Airways, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic, are also part owners. They control a 42 per cent stake, the second biggest after the British state, which holds 49 per cent. The agency has paid out £419mn in dividends over the past decade.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the trade body for UK registered carriers, said there needed to be “accountability when things go wrong”. Although airlines were keen to talk to Nats about compensation in due course the industry was also “seeking clarity on the scope of the existing law” to see if there were any options for redress, he added.
Questions are also being asked about a lack of resilience in Nats’ systems. Tim Jeans, a former senior airline executive, said there was “clearly insufficient redundancy and back-up” if a “single misfiled flight plan could bring the whole system down”.
Nats said it had invested £1.3bn in its capital programme, including on new technology, over the past decade. The agency is due to present the findings of its internal investigation into the shutdown to transport secretary Mark Harper on Monday.
Senior airline executives have called for a more in-depth probe, which Harper is expected to ask the CAA to lead. Johan Lundgren, chief executive of easyJet, said passengers “deserve to see a full independent review” which should consider other issues including staffing levels at Nats.
The fallout has also reignited calls for the CAA to be given more powers, including the ability to levy fines in consumer protection cases, something the government said recently it planned to act on without committing to a timeframe.
Rory Boland, travel editor at the consumer group Which?, urged prime minister Rishi Sunak to ensure that commitment was firmed up, adding that there were “worrying reports” of airlines not fulfilling their obligations towards passengers as expected this week.
He said it was “essential the prime minister shows his support for travellers by prioritising legislation for the Civil Aviation Authority to receive direct fining powers in the King’s Speech this autumn,” when the government’s legislative programme is set out.
The government would not give a timeframe for introducing new legislation but it said: “The transport secretary has urged airlines to continue doing all they can to support passengers, ensuring customers have adequate welfare and accommodation while waiting for their rearranged flights — as per their legal obligations.”