Further air traffic control (ATC) issues have hit the UK after one of its major airports, London Gatwick, which is putting temporary flight restrictions in place to deal with reduced staffing levels at its control tower due to sickness. 

The decision to limit flights to 800 a day, covering departures and arrivals, was made alongside the UK’s national air traffic control body NATS which is responsible for the ATC staff, 30% of whom are currently unavailable for medical reasons including Covid-19 diagnoses. 

Restrictions, which could affect around 164 flights according to data for the previously expected number of movements at Gatwick each day this week, will remain in place until Sunday 1 October. 

Gatwick CEO Stewart Wingate apologised to affected passengers, he said: “This has been a difficult decision but the action we have taken today means our airlines can fly reliable flight programmes, which gives passengers more certainty that they will not face last minute cancellations.  

“We are working closely with NATS to build resilience in the control tower, and this decision means we can prevent as much disruptions as possible.” 

News of the limits comes less than a month after a system outage, caused by an issue with a flight plan processing sub-system, lead NATS to introduce temporary traffic restrictions across the entire UK airspace. 

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Gatwick will reportedly share the cancellations equally between airlines, but budget airline Ryanair has claimed it will not be cancelling any flights to and from the airport. 

The airline, which has also been very critical of NATS’ response to the summer system outage, called on NATS CEO Martin Rolfe to fix the staff shortage issue or resign from his position and described the organisation as “a shambles.” 

A spokesperson for Ryanair said it was unacceptable to ask airlines to cancel flights, they said: “It is clear that NATS CEO, Martin Rolfe has taken no action to resolve these ATC staff shortages and should now do the right thing and step down as NATS CEO so that someone competent can do the job. 

“We call on the CAA to immediately intervene and protect passengers from this ongoing UK ATC shambles.”

NATS itself said that the decision had been made after looking at levels of sickness across recent weeks and it would continue to rain additional ATC controllers going forward, with another group set to qualify to work at the Gatwick tower in the coming months.

A statement said: “Even an experienced air traffic controller takes at least 9 months to qualify at Gatwick and very few are able to do so, as Gatwick is such a busy and complex air traffic environment.

“We will continue to recruit and train air traffic controllers at Gatwick a fast as possible to ensure we return to a fully resilient operation as soon as we can.”