A blip on the radar


There was chaos at Dublin Airport on Wednesday after a serious radar fault. Could it happen again? asks Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

TO THE overwrought mind of the nervous flyer, the thought of icons vanishing inexplicably from air traffic controllers' radar screens is not the sort of thing that soothes the nerves.

That's what happened at 11.45am on Wednesday, when a faulty radar meant controllers at Dublin airport lost sight of the labels that accompany each aircraft "blip" as they make their approach, each one holding details of a plane's code, route, altitude and speed. That first breakdown lasted for 10 minutes, but when it happened a second time, at about 1.30pm, controllers decided, out of concern for safety, to shut down the runway to all inbound traffic.

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) insists - and aviation specialists agree - that the loss of these on-screen labels did not in itself pose a grave risk to safety. Blame lay with the secondary surveillance radar, which communicates automatically with a transponder on board each plane and eliminates the need for controller and pilot to speak directly to each other. Without the radar, ground staff reverted to those calls, a time-consuming process that means fewer planes could be handled at any one time. When the second breakdown occurred on Wednesday afternoon, controllers held departing aircraft on the tarmac and kept some inbound planes in holding patterns before they could be guided safely onto the runway.

Within hours of Wednesday's shutdown, Dublin airport was enveloped in chaos. The Dublin Airport Authority held an emergency meeting and doubled its staff numbers to salvage as much of the day's schedule as possible, but before the day was out, more than 200 flights had been delayed, diverted or cancelled, and thousands were left stranded across Europe. Press photographers descended on the airport to update their seasonal stock of pictures showing glum travellers sitting on suitcases, and the airwaves gave vent to the fury of some of the many thousand travellers upset by the cost and the inconvenience.

In a month of unremittingly bleak news and pounding rain, there was an especially miserable quality to the pictures of crowds sitting forlornly in the departures lounge, with even the option of fleeing the country now closed off. Ryanair, the airport's biggest user, said more than 13,000 of its passengers were affected that day.

Landings and take-offs resumed at half their usual rate on Wednesday afternoon, but continuing restrictions on traffic volume meant that for most of Thursday - even after engineers from the radar system's supplier Thales had identified the cause of the fault - air traffic control was still only working at 70 per cent of capacity. The IAA says a full service won't resume until early next week.

FOR THEIR PART, the airlines found themselves caught in the middle of the maelstrom of recrimination - absorbing the anger of passengers at the paucity of information and courtesy (not to mention compensation) while channelling their own ire towards the IAA. First into the fray, characteristically, was Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary, who described the IAA as a "shambles" and called for a Government investigation into what went wrong. Estimating its losses at about €1 million for Wednesday alone, Ryanair said problems with the radar had been known about for some time - the IAA admits that the radar failed four times since early June - and it was unacceptable that no contingency plan was in place. This was the contingency plan, the IAA retorted.

When the shutdown occurred on Wednesday, the problem was quickly traced to a faulty piece of hardware, and bad weather would have meant the airport was running at close to 50 per cent capacity anyway. As Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey told the Dáil on Thursday, a full back-up system would cost another €115 million.

Another contentious issue for passengers and airlines is compensation. Under European consumer regulations, passengers must be offered help free of charge while awaiting a rerouted flight, with meals, accommodation if necessary, transport between the airport and accommodation and telephone calls provided. But some airlines resent having to reimburse the cost of disruption which was not their fault. When asked yesterday about his passengers' complaints that they weren't offered the courtesy of a cup of a tea or a taxi fare to their hotel, Ryanair's Michael O'Leary said: "Personally, I think that's a load of nonsense. You paid an airfare of €40. You saved around €150. Buy your own cup of tea . . . Why are we providing cups of tea because the IAA can't run a radar system properly?"

The Commission for Aviation Regulation advises those who were not given their entitlements to contact it. But, as for full financial compensation, passengers will not find much consolation. Airlines have no obligation to pay if they can prove a cancellation was caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided, and consumer groups agree that the failure of the radar is proof enough.

BY EARLY YESTERDAY afternoon, the IAA said Dublin airport was running at 80 per cent of capacity, and the arrival rate had increased from 16 aircraft an hour to 20, though further delays are likely over the coming days. Once the system is back at full tilt and the queues have eased, however, the same questions will remain. How did a state-of-the-art radar system that cost €115 million when it was installed only five years ago break down six times in less than six weeks? And did the contingency plan really envisage Europe's 10th-busiest airport coming to a halt and leaving thousands of people stranded like this?

Noel Dempsey has asked the IAA for a full report on the problem, while Aer Lingus chief executive Dermot Mannion has suggested that a backup system may be needed if this week's upheaval is not to repeat itself. As for the current system, the IAA spokeswoman says there is nothing to indicate a recurrence is likely.

Is that a guarantee? "I can't give any guarantees. I don't expect that anyone can give any guarantees. The engineers are satisfied they have identified the cause of the problem, and they are satisfied that they have rectified it."