Thousands of passengers were delayed at airports across the U.K. after a technical fault in the system that manages the country’s air traffic disrupted flights.

London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest hub, canceled 178 flights, split equally between arrivals and departures, a spokesman said by phone. Some other flights left after delays of more than two hours, the airport said on its website. British Airways, the biggest user of Heathrow, advised passengers to check flight statuses before traveling to the airport.

The faults at the Swanwick air traffic control center in southern England won’t be fixed before 8 p.m. local time, Eurocontrol, the region’s central airspace management organization, said on its website. Airports affected by the disruption include London’s Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City, as well as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dundee, Southampton and Liverpool, Sky News reported.

EasyJet Plc, Europe’s second-largest discount carrier, advised passengers to “check-in for their flights as normal as the situation can improve.” Ryanair Holdings Plc, the region’s biggest low-fare operation, said on its website some flights were diverted and others delayed.

Heathrow cancellations were most likely to be on short-haul flights, according to Nathan Fletcher, a spokesman for the airport. “We are expecting disruptions throughout the day,” he said.

Long lines formed at a British Airways customer services desk inside Heathrow’s Terminal 1, which was staffed by three employees.


Luton, Stansted


Departures from Luton airport were delayed by about an hour, a spokesman said. Stansted flights were delayed by “a couple of hours,” spokesman Mark Davison said.

Technicians were able to divide up air traffic sectors this morning to increase the number of flights that can be handled, said Eurocontrol, which covers 39 member states from Armenia to Ireland, including those in the EU. “Delays are still very high, but were reduced significantly,” it said.

National Air Traffic Services Holdings Ltd., the company that provides air traffic management services in the U.K, said the Swanwick center had difficulty switching from its nighttime to daytime operations in the early hours of today.

“At night, when it’s quiet, we can combine sectors of airspace,” a spokesman at NATS said. “When it gets busy in the daytime, we split the sectors out again. The voice communications system is configured to enable this to happen.”

Flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol were among those affected, with the Dutch airport receiving fewer aircraft from the U.K., Brit Wijkniet, a spokeswoman for Schiphol, said by phone.

Some pilots were being advised to fly lower to reduce delays, Eurocontrol said. The airspace controlled by Swanwick covers the entire south of the U.K. and extends west to Ireland, the NATS spokesman said, adding that staff are working as quickly as possible to resolve the situation.

–With assistance from Fred Pals in Amsterdam and Roger Neill at Heathrow airport. Editors: John Viljoen, Jennifer Joan Lee


To contact the reporters on this story: Sheela Sharma in London at; Robert Wall in London at


To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Ludden at

Photo Credit: Passengers queue at the flight check-in desk at London's Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 after a "technical problem" at the National Air Traffic Services (Nats) control centre in Swanwick, south England, caused long delays and cancellations at airports across the UK, Saturday Dec. 7, 2013. Steve Parsons / Associated Press