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UK ATC system falls over - again

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Thousands of travellers were last night delayed in British airports after one of the National Air Traffic Services' (NATS) air traffic control computers failed. Engineers identified a problem with the Flight Data Processing System (FDPS) at West Drayton, Middlesex, and were forced to shut down the 30-year-old system and switch to manual operations for half an hour. The NATS' new £623m Lockheed Martin set-up at Swanwick relies on a data feed from the venerable FDPS, so if the latter goes down, so does the whole kit and caboodle.

Despite the short duration of the outage, restrictions on the number of aircraft entering UK airspace or taking off from domestic airports quickly created delays.

This is not the first time the UK's ATC computer system has crashed and burned. The very, very expensive Swanwick kit itself fell over last year in spectacular style, prompting us to call it "perhaps the ultimate hopeless government IT project".

And while frustrated customers may curse the cantakerous ATC kit, the airlines too may soon be feeling the effect of future cock-ups where it hurts - in the pocket. European legislation introduced today allows passengers to claim compensation for flight cancellations which means NATS could find itself at the receiving end of a bit of tin-rattling by the flyboys if they think that NATS' wobbly ATC computer has cost them hard cash.

The solution? Well, here's what the business sector has to say, according to BMC Software's Paul Arthur: ''In industries where minutes count, the timely and appropriate identification of technical failures and their impact on customer facing services relies heavily on not just having the right technical tools but also the processes and methodologies in place.

''By aligning technical components to business services the impact of an incident can be easily assessed allowing the right priority to be assigned to the problem. Applying business service management methodologies to the management of that incident means that high customer impact issues can be resolved first and the process can be tracked closely to ensure quicker resumption of customer service. Incident management is key in today's service orientated culture and is the only way to ensure that business downtime is minimised.''

Or in realspeak: "Get your bloody act together - sharpish." Enough said. ®

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