Flight Disruption – The Most Expensive IT Glitch in History?

A staggering £100m is the estimated cost to airlines for the flight disruption caused by a computer glitch at NAT. Unreliable flight data appears to have been the cause of the widespread disruption that has affected thousands of passengers. More than 1000 flights departing UK airports were cancelled over a three-day period. There has also been a knock-on effect on businesses and workplaces around the UK, with people being stranded abroad and unable to return to work after their holidays. This follows the recent disruption caused by wildfires in Greece.

Passengers are quite rightly asking for compensation for the delays caused by the IT glitch. Many people have suffered incredible inconvenience and stress because of the delays. Though, in this case, it does seem inappropriate and unfair for airlines to have to foot the entire bill, although they will obviously fulfil their duties to passengers. The IT failure is clearly something outside of their control and is an extraordinary circumstance. The airlines do owe a duty of care to passengers and have to provide accommodation and re-routing. They should not however have to bear the cost of compensation for delay under Article 7 of Regulation 261. This is because a failure of the air traffic control system is something the airlines have no control over whatsoever.

Passengers whose flights are cancelled should be given the choice of rerouting, a refund or return. Where flights are delayed, passengers have a right of assistance, including meals, refreshments, accommodation, and transfers. Airlines have to reimburse passengers for their reasonable costs, such as hotels and meals. The airlines, in our experience, are generally willing to reimburse passengers. Airlines do face claims from passengers for luxury hotels and expensive meals as well as consequential losses which cannot be justified and, in those circumstances, unfortunately such claims do sometimes end up in Court. We have a great deal of experience defending such claims.

Airlines are likely to have to pick up a massive bill through no fault of their own. It will also take a few days for flight schedules to return to normal. Other businesses will also face disruption, with employees unable to return to work on time after their holidays. It is fair to say that airlines are victims here too, and they can ill afford these additional costs following hard on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a situation where the government should step in and compensate airlines for the air traffic control failure.

© Peter Causton 2023