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London Airspace Restricted by Air Traffic Control ‘Technical Problem’

LONDON — Airspace over London was restricted following an air traffic control computer failure Friday that triggered chaos at the British capital's five airports.

The technical problem caused more than 50 cancellations and countless delays at Heathrow Airport, the city's largest hub, where all flights were grounded for about 30 minutes.

"This is not a great start to our holiday," 38-year-old Londoner Brendan Saritschniy told NBC News from his stranded Qatar Airways flight. Saritschniy and his wife were departing for a three-week vacation in Thailand — but after more than two hours sitting on the tarmac he said they would "surely miss our connection" in the Qatar capital Doha.

A spokesman at Heathrow Airport said the technical glitch lasted from 3:27 p.m. to 4:03 p.m. (10:27 a.m. to 11:03 a.m. ET). He said the airport expected the number of cancellations and delays to rise because of the backlog. The airport, the third busiest in the world, usually handles up to 90 flights per hour.

"Disruption on this scale is simply unacceptable," said British Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin in a statement. He said he had asked NATS, the firm which runs the air traffic control center where the glitch occurred, for "a full explanation of this evening's incident."

At Heathrow, passengers on United Flight 941 to Newark were told about the computer problem as they boarded at 3:30 p.m. local time (10:30 a.m. ET). United gate staff said the plane would be loaded with passengers and head toward a runway in the hopes that the computer problem could be fixed.

NATS clarified an earlier statement by European authorities, which said airspace over the city would be closed until 7 p.m. (2 p.m. ET). NATS said there had been no closure but that capacity had been "restricted in order to manage the situation."

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— Alexander Smith, Rebekah Smyth and Matthew Grimson, with The Associated Press and Reuters