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Nats chief apologises over glitch

As many as 120 flights were cancelled and 500 delayed by an average of 45 minutes during last week's aviation disruption, the boss of air traffic control company Nats has told MPs.

Apologising to "customers, airports and the travelling public" for Friday's computer glitch, Nats chief executive Richard Deakin said his company's contingency and back-up plans worked well.

Appearing before the House of Commons Transport Committee Mr Deakin said that around 10,000 passengers were affected by the Friday problem which occurred at Nats' headquarters at Swanwick in Hampshire.

Heathrow, Luton and Gatwick airports were the ones mainly affected by the problem, Mr Deakin said.

He told the committee: "Any complex system will have failures" , adding that it would be "unrealistic" to expect there would be no failures.

Mr Deakin was appearing with Nats operations managing director Martin Rolfe as well as Andrew Haines, chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority which has already announced that an independent inquiry will be held into last Friday's failure.

The committee has already taken evidence this week from Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin who described last week's flight delays as "unacceptable".

Questioned today about the independence of the inquiry, Mr Haines said it would be "highly independent".

Mr Rolfe told MPs that the piece of equipment that failed last week dated from the mid-1990s and had dealt with 20 million flights and had been upgraded continually.

Asked if he agreed with Mr McLoughlin that the failure last week was "unacceptable", Mr Deakin said: "For the passengers who got caught up in all this, yes, it was unacceptable and by implication it was unacceptable for us as well.

"We are not proud of what happened. We are proud of how we responded."

It was put to Mr Deakin that he sounded "very, very complacent".

He replied: "Not at all."

Mr Deakin confirmed that, including a £272,000 bonus, he received a £1.05 million pay package for the 12 months ending last March.

He also confirmed that the bonus was cut by 12% due to the flight disruption caused by another Swanwick problem last December.

Asked if he expected to have this year's bonus cut, Mr Deakin said that would be up to Nats' remuneration committee but he added that any bonus would be linked to performance.

Asked about future performance, Mr Deakin said: "I can guarantee that this particular problem will not happen again but I cannot honestly sit here and say we will never have a computer glitch again."

Mr Haines said he hoped that the full report by the inquiry team would be published by the end of March.

Mr Rolfe said he disagreed with a suggestion that Nats' systems were "fundamentally flawed". Incidents such as last Friday's and the one in December 2013 were "very rare and very regrettable" he added.

Mr Deakin said that latest figures showed that 99.7% of flights using UK airspace face no delays. Of the 0.3% which do, the average delay is 26 minutes.

Following last week's disruption Business Secretary Vince Cable had questioned Nats' investment levels. Mr Deakin said there was no question of putting profit before investment and indeed investment levels were between 1.4 and 1.9 times higher than before the company was privatised.

He also refuted any suggestion that Nats systems were "ancient or antiquated". He went on: "Just because technology is 'old' it does not necessarily mean that it is not fit for purpose."

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