A brief malfunction in the UK’s air navigation system on Sunday night went largely unnoticed initially, capturing the attention of only a few seasoned professionals in the aviation industry. However, the situation deteriorated by Monday morning, causing severe disruptions. The communications glitch wasn’t minor; it affected the main tourism source market for the Canary Islands, especially Tenerife, and crippled operations at London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport.
The system outage lasted merely between three and five hours, but it was enough to strand over 10,000 passengers in the Canary Islands from Monday through Tuesday. Rebooking these passengers became a daunting task as Tuesday, along with Friday, witnesses some of the highest passenger traffic.
Aena, the Spanish Airports and Air Navigation Authority, confirmed that up to 73 flights were cancelled across Canary Islands’ airports on Tuesday, with Tenerife South experiencing the brunt of it, accounting for 38 of these cancellations. Gran Canaria saw 15 cancellations, Lanzarote 13, and Fuerteventura seven.
Regarding delays, airlines slowly regained normal operations throughout Tuesday after the chaos of Monday. Aena distributed blankets and water to stranded passengers and alerted the Red Cross, which set up temporary accommodations for vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and children.
Tourists in Tenerife South were scrambling to find accommodations as many flights were rescheduled for Friday. However, those who booked through tour operators fared better, as these companies have established contingencies for such disruptions.
For example, Jet2, a major tour operator serving the British market in Tenerife, said it had 16 affected flights, leaving approximately 4,000 passengers stranded at Tenerife South. The company assured that these passengers had been accommodated in hotels while being rebooked on new flights.
The UK’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS) termed the issue a “breakdown in the flight planning system,” which hampered their ability to manage flights intelligently and automatically. The total number of delays and cancellations ran into the hundreds, exacerbating the situation.
The incident highlighted the vulnerability of the Canary Islands’ tourism sector, heavily dependent on the British market. Last year alone, over five million UK residents visited the islands, more than double from Germany, which is the second-largest market with 2.4 million visitors. Even a few hours of system failure in the UK had a far-reaching impact, exposing the fragility of the tourism ecosystem in the Canary Islands.