Science, Tech & Environment

A computer glitch paralyzes London's Heathrow Airport for hours

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An aircraft takes off from Heathrow Airport in west London.

Credit:

Andrew Winning/Reuters

A computer problem that shuts down an airport sounds kind of like the start of a terrible action movie. But five airports in the United Kingdom were effectively shut down for several hours on Friday thanks to computers on the fritz. That included Heathrow, one of Europe's busiest hubs.

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So what happened? Just your basic computer glitch.

Airline security expert Chris Yates was not surprised. “I thought, 'Not again,' quite frankly,” Yates says. “This not the first time this has happened. It happened this time last year. It happened a couple of years ago as well.”

The air traffic control system simply isn't capable of standing up to the demands of peak travel periods, according to Yates.  And that’s no small problem, because all air traffic control in the UK is computer-driven.

“The vast majority of all of the data is handled by this super computer," Yates explains, and "as the air traffic control system has developed, it’s become ever more complex."

The main traffic control system, located in southern England, monitors all of the air traffic coming to and from a large swath of air space that reaches from the Scottish border down to the southern tip of the United Kingdom.

“That is completely separate from control at London Heathrow or London Gatwick. It is a control center that controls flights once they’ve left airports or when they’re on the way to airports,” Yates explains. “It not only handles all of the voice communication between aircraft and controllers, but it also handles the eyes in the sky, if you will — the visual display of where all the aircraft are in any given moment.”