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'Creaky' air traffic control systems

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A computer failure at a key air traffic control centre caused massive flight disruption in the UK this morning, causing widespread groundings and cancellations.

Air traffic controllers at a centre in West Drayton, near Heathrow had to turn to pen and paper between 0605 and 0640 this morning because of the fault, whose exact cause remains unclear. The system was fixed by 0640 but the knock on effects of the problem meant that air traffic control services ran at 70 per cent of normal capacity until 10am this morning, the BBC reports.

Passengers suffered widespread delays and some cancellations because of the problem, but most flights are now departing on schedule.

Flights from Birmingham International Airport were suspended until 0915 because of the breakdown, and passengers at the main London airports and in Manchester faced delays of two hours or more this morning.

Ian Smilie, a spokesman for the Air Traffic Controllers' Union, told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the breakdown posed no safety risk for passengers since radar systems were unaffected by the fault.

He did, however, come out with sharp criticisms of computer systems which he described as "a very creaky system that has been patched together over a number of years" and was prone to crashing.

Today's glitch comes less than two weeks after a similar problem with the air traffic control system left many travellers stranded. The incidents are likely to provoke some pointed questions of the newly-privatised National Air Traffic Services (Nats) which is already having to field criticism about the Swanwick air traffic control centre, which opened this January - six years behind schedule due to protracted software problems. ®

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