Now it is Air Traffic Control IT failures – call for James Bond / Austin Powers!

After our feature last week on NatWest and NPower  IT problems and the knock on effects on customers, the weekend saw huge problems at many UK airports because of issues at the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) centre in Swanwick, Hampshire. Hundreds of flights were delayed, passengers slept on terminal floors, all the usual horror stories that we’re used to seeing because of the weather, but not because of a failure in the telephone system. The Southern Daily Echo said:

The issue arose when Nats' night-time operating system, which combines sectors of airspace for when it is less busy, did not properly switch over to the daytime system, causing a communication problem with the centre's internal telephones.

That seems a fairly trivial failure to have such major implications, although it is not clear from what I’ve seen whether it was the IT or the telephone system that was to blame.

Now, if I were a conspiracy theorist, I might speculate that the UK is under attack from a hostile government or non-state terrorist organisation, infiltrating critical IT systems that affect our daily lives. Our banks, energy firms and airports, all within a week? Of course, it couldn’t be China, because we’re all friends now and about to sell them pig semen as part of the latest trade deal.  And the ex UK Government CIO works for Chinese telecoms firm Huawei now.

So who could it be? North Korea? Some shadowy bunch of anarchist hackers and Bitcoin promoters?  Shane Warne and Mitchell Johnson? France?

But assuming this isn’t a case for James Bond or Austin Powers, then it does raise some serious contractual and procurement issues. Whose fault will this turn out to be? That may lead to all sorts of contractual implications. Might Nats be vulnerable to contractual or legal action? Of if a supplier is at fault, then the costs incurred by airlines and by the operators of the airports may find their way back to that supplier.

However, Nats itself is owned largely by the UK government and a firm whose shareholders are major airlines British Airways, Lufthansa, EasyJet, Monarch Airlines, Thomas CookAirlines, Thomson Airways and Virgin Atlantic; so some might end up suing themselves if they did take action!

In any case, it highlights the need both to think carefully about the provisions for problems and issues when negotiating contracts, particularly where a supplier failure might lead you to be vulnerable to action from your customers. It’s also another reminder of the importance of risk management in every aspect of business, whether supplier related or not. It does look as if the risk mitigation approach here was somewhat weak given this should not have been a totally unforeseen issue.

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First Voice

  1. Midfield Captain:

    Excellent summation and lots of grist for the our own mills (mine especially).

    I don’t know if you scan older posts for comments, but it strikes me in a roundabout and admittedly tenuous fashion, that the ‘selection’ of the con-m… sorry, sign language interpreter for Barack Obabma’s Nelson Mandela eulogy, was beholden to ‘government procurement’ processes.

    Perhaps there’s an article or commentary to be had from taking a closer look at ‘procesess’ such as these resulting in sub-optimal outcomes, as well as the risks associated with the procurement of professional services?

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