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Passengers at British airports face long delays today after the computer system running air traffic control failed early this morning. Flights leaving the UK were grounded so controllers could concentrate on safely landing incoming planes. Heathrow, Gatwick and some regional airports were affected.

National Air Traffic Services, which runs British air traffic control, was unable to comment at press time. According to a professional pilots' bulletin board the problem was with the Host Computer System at West Drayton. It was shut down overnight for an upgrade and failed when it was rebooted.

The £623m computer system from Lockheed Martin has been perhaps the ultimate hopeless government IT project. Originally due for delivery in 1996 it has been plagued by problems and delays. The software needed lengthy debugging and the text on the screens was too small to be readable. Computer Weekly, which follows NATs obsessively, got hold of a safety report showing record numbers of "overloads" for air traffic controllers after they moved into the new centre. In January of this year NATS upgraded software after a near miss involving a Delta Airlines plane and a Virgin Atlantic jumbo.

The last time the system went down was in May 2002. ®

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