When Donal Mullane flew from London to Italy over the August bank holiday long weekend, he had planned a short city break in Florence. But on Monday, when he was due to return, Britain’s air traffic control system was all but shut down.
The 59-year-old, who was among thousands of other passengers caught up in travel chaos after a technical glitch grounded hundreds of flights, had to wait days to get home and was finally back at Heathrow on Thursday afternoon.
Mullan, who works in financial services in London, must now go through the lengthy process of claiming a refund from British Airways for the extra cost of accommodation and meals. He said he was determined to make sure he didn’t pay “out of pocket”.
But what he couldn’t recover was the time it took to rebook flights through an overworked call center, and he wasn’t entitled to compensation for lost earnings after his employer informed him that a three-day absence would be considered unpaid leave. “I found the whole incident very depressing,” Mullan said.
Last Monday, the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) suffered its worst power outage in more than a decade, resulting in more than 2,000 flight cancellations and delays over the past five days.
While the exact cause is still under investigation – the suspected trigger being flight plan information that the system did not recognize – the airlines left to deal with the confusion are calling for changes to compensation rules.
It also sparked a broader debate about consumer protection for air passengers and whether aviation regulator the Civil Aviation Authority should be given greater powers.
Airlines are estimated to face bills of up to £100m as passengers claim extra accommodation and living costs due to canceled flights.
In contrast, Nats, which handles more than 2 million flights a year, said that because it has an “obligation to ensure the safety of air traffic,” it can, under the law, “take appropriate measures to reduce traffic when required without financial penalties. ”
However, the agency does have to meet certain performance standards set by the Civil Aviation Authority. If it falls below these standards, it faces financial penalties: a less severe power outage in December 2014, for example, cost Nats £500,000.
Willie Walsh, president of the global airline trade body IATA, said earlier that “it’s very unfair because the air traffic control system at the heart of this failure has not paid a dime”. Week.
However, Nats’ relationship with its airline clients is complicated because some airline clients, including British Airways, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic, are also shareholders. They control 42% of the shares, second only to the UK government (49%). The institution has paid out £419m in dividends over the past decade.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of British Airways, the trade body for UK-registered airlines, said there was “accountability when things go wrong”. He added that while airlines were keen to discuss compensation with Nats in due course, the industry was also “seeking to clarify the scope of the existing law” to see if there were any remedial options.
Questions have also been raised about the lack of resilience in the Nats system. Tim Jeans, a former senior airline executive, said that if “one wrongly filed flight plan could bring down the entire system”, there was “clearly not enough redundancy and back-up”.
Nats said it had invested £1.3bn in capital programs over the past decade, including new technology. The agency will present the findings of its internal investigation into the government shutdown to Transportation Secretary Mark Harper on Monday.
Senior airline executives have called for a deeper investigation, and Harper is expected to ask the Civil Aviation Authority to take the lead. EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said passengers “should see a full independent review” which should consider other issues, including Nats’ staffing levels.
The fallout from the incident has also reignited calls for more powers to be given to the CAA, including the ability to levy fines in consumer protection cases, which is the government’s role explain More recently, it plans to take action without committing to a timeline.
Rory Boland, travel editor of consumer group Which?, urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to ensure a firm commitment, adding that there had been “worrying reports” that airlines were Obligations to passengers were not fulfilled as expected.
He said that while the government was drawing up its legislative plans, “the Prime Minister must prioritize legislation giving the Civil Aviation Authority direct fine powers in the King’s Speech this autumn to show his support for travellers”.
The government would not give a timetable for introducing the new legislation, but said: “The Transport Minister has urged airlines to continue to do everything they can to support passengers and ensure they have adequate benefits and accommodation while they wait for rescheduled flights – according to its legal obligations”.