December 15, 2014 / 7:33 AM / 4 years ago

Britain to set up inquiry into air traffic failure

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will set up an inquiry into a technical failure at an air traffic control centre that caused widespread disruption to London flights last week, an investigation that the transport minister said should be completed by March.

An aircraft taxis next to the control tower at Heathrow airport in London, December 12, 2014. Flights to and from London were severely disrupted on Friday by a technical failure at England's main air traffic control center that forced authorities to limit access to the country's airspace. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls (BRITAIN - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS SOCIETY TRAVEL) - RTR4HT5A

Hundreds of flights to and from London were disrupted on Friday, causing knock-on effects to air travel across Europe, in an incident which British Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin called “simply unacceptable”.

The National Air Traffic Service (NATS) and the aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), said on Monday that they would set up an independent inquiry.

They said they would appoint a chairman and several experts to study the causes of and responses to the failure, in a bid to try to avoid similar incidents in future.

“I want it to be done as quickly as possible. I do want some speed in this,” McLoughlin told a committee of lawmakers as they grilled him over the incident.

He said the inquiry should produce an interim report by the end of January and publish its final findings some time in March.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the inquiry needed to examine the failure “very, very carefully”.

“Our skies, our air traffic control, is a hugely important business and safety issue for Britain,” he told the BBC.

Heathrow - London’s main airport - is a major hub for international transfers, meaning the disruption was felt far beyond Britain.

The incident was the second such incident in just over a year at the NATS hub at Swanwick in southern England, one of its two main centres.

McLoughlin told lawmakers that since last year’s hitch, NATS had improved its performance. He said operations were back up and running much more quickly in the wake of the most recent incident compared with last year.

He denied criticism that NATS, which is jointly owned by the government, a group of airlines including British Airways owner IAG and others, was suffering from under-investment, saying the service typically spent around 140 million pounds ($219 million) a year on its IT systems.

Officials from the CAA and NATS will appear before lawmakers on Wednesday as part of the parliamentary committee’s investigation into the disruption.

Reporting by Sarah Young; additional reporting by William James; editing by Kate Holton and Pravin Char

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