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Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 07:16 GMT 08:16 UK
Airports battle to clear backlog
Workers at Swanwick air traffic control centre
Some air traffic control computers were not working on Friday
Thousands of air passengers are still facing long delays because of a computer glitch at the new air traffic control centre in Swanwick, Hampshire.

Although the software problem was fixed on Friday, airlines are struggling to clear the backlog of flights which built up.

British Airways, which had to cancel 87 flights on Friday, said it expected problems to continue into the weekend.

Toby Nicol, from budget airline Easyjet, said it had been forced to refund passengers without any hope of receiving compensation itself.

He told BBC Radio 5 Live: "For those people going away on a Friday or coming back into the country... it's just been a complete and utter mess."

'Significant disruption'

Airports said they hoped to clear the backlog during Saturday, but passengers were advised to call ahead as they could still be affected.

Air traffic controllers at Swanwick had to halve the number of aircraft normally in the skies because only half of the control positions were working at full capacity on Friday morning.

Services were further affected by an air traffic control problem in Brussels, which has delayed the recovery of flights out of Gatwick and Heathrow in particular.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow Airport said it expects to continue to suffer "significant disruption into the weekend as a result of air traffic control problems".

Gatwick Airport said 70% of flights were affected at one point on Friday.

Stansted was also badly affected by the software glitch, while regional airports said they had started to clear the backlog during the afternoon on Friday.

A spokesman for BAA Scottish Airports said the problems had a knock-on effect north of the border.

'No safety issues'

Nats said the problem began after a regular monthly computer upgrade at Swanwick, which controls most of the airspace across England and Wales.

Nats chief executive Richard Everitt insisted safety had not been compromised.

He said: "There are no safety issues, I can assure you on that. Our systems are designed with safety right at the heart of them, including our fall-back position."

It is the third time in two months flights have been delayed by air traffic control system problems.

Similar difficulties with the air traffic control system have blighted travellers journeys in the last two months.

Air traffic control problems 2002
Jan: 623m Swanwick centre opens six years late
Feb: Nats given a 60m loan for losses since 11 Sep
March: West Drayton control centre hitch disrupts flights
10 April: More disruption from West Drayton control centre
17 May: Computer failure at Swanwick causes delays of up to 6hrs
Flights were delayed for up to two hours last month when a computer problem hit West Drayton air traffic control centre near Heathrow.

A similar problem at West Drayton on 27 March led to severe disruption to pre-Easter services.

Passengers said they were very frustrated by the delays, especially at the lack of information.

Dan and Helen Stewart were hoping to fly from Heathrow to Finland on business, but staff were unable to tell them when their flight would leave.

"You just never know when you're going to get there, so you don't know how to call and tell anybody at the other end when you're going to show up," said Mr Stewart.

One passenger at Luton Airport said: "I was due to fly to Edinburgh at five. Now they're saying seven. I've got to pick up my little boy who's four.

"And if it gets much later it's going to cause problems."

The BBC's Tom Symonds
"Experts still are not entirely sure why they went wrong"
Chief executive of NATS, Richard Everitt
"We have now isolated the problem"
The BBC's Nik Gowing stranded in Amsterdam
"We are making a lot of friends"
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