On Friday afternoon, Nats, the National Air Traffic Service, suffered a computer malfunction in its Swanwick centre. The problem, which lasted for 36 minutes, meant that London’s airspace was cleared, many flights were forced to land in alternative airports, and over 100 flights from London’s airports were cancelled.
Since the malfunction, MPs have weighed in with their views. The government said the disruption was “unacceptable” and demanded a “full explanation” of what had gone wrong. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin is due to be questioned by MPs on Monday about the chaos caused.
Labour has called for ministers to “get a grip” and the Labour chairwoman of the transport select committee, Louise Ellman, said it was “vital that we establish what happened”.
The organisation’s chief executive, Richard Deakin, has come under increased pressure, with journalists citing his 2014 pay package in excess of £1m. (This is irrelevant, for what it’s worth.)
Initial reports suggest that the root cause was a single line of rogue code in one of the 50+ systems managed at Swanwick.
At no stage in the proceedings over the last 36 hours have I seen any reference to how admirably Nats dealt with the situation. In summary, no one died. None of the planes ran out of fuel before being able to land. It seems that the failover process that kicks in when a glitch like this happens had safety as its core. London’s airspace was cleared – very quickly, it seems – and everyone was kept safe.
Instead, the reports have focused on the dreadful time that travellers had sitting around in Heathrow for a few hours.
Our lives involve high levels of sophistication – from crossing the road at a Pelican crossing to contactless payments to synchronisation of music across devices to control of a very busy airspace above the south of England. Sometimes, the systems that support this high level of sophistication go wrong. For a short period of time, a certain bank’s cashpoints are unable to give out cash; a set of traffic lights stops working; Apple deletes your music collection.
We need to accept that there will be an element of disruption associated with system failures. And our demand, particularly for systems that are integral to an aspect of our safety, should be that we are kept safe when they suffer problems. Nats did this with aplomb.
Yes, ask some questions and try to avoid a similar problem happening in the future. But please, get some context. No one died. Some people were inconvenienced.