Sir Stelios tells easyJet board they can be replaced

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Discontent over excessive corporate pay exploded at the budget airline easyJet as Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou angrily reacted to directors who threatened to quit over his plans to curb remuneration in the boardroom.

"Stelios", who founded the airline 17 years ago and remains a major shareholder, was furious with non-executive directors who, at the weekend, warned they saw his threatened vote against a pay deal as a "motion of confidence", raising the spectre of mass resignations.

The entrepreneur yesterday urged his fellow investors to call their bluff, responding that if they did quit, the company would simply replace them.

His response chimes with a growing public feeling that executive pay is out of control at a time when the rest of the country is suffering minimal pay rises and possible redundancy.

Sir Stelios declared: "These guys are welcome to resign anytime. We could easily replace them with talented executives and experienced non-executive directors who will cost half as much in bonuses. We must take a stand against directors who seem to regard our company as their personal piggy bank to be dipped into at will. The gravy train of £180 million in free shares issued over the last decade must come to an end now."

The row highlights the growing confidence among investors to fight against boardroom pay.

Last week, the oil and gas explorer Cairn Energy slashed the pay package of the chairman, Sir Bill Gammell, after shareholders complained it was excessive.

Vince Cable, Business Secretary, has tabled reforms to make shareholder votes on pay legally binding on companies.

Last year, Sir Stelios succeeded in securing the backing of more than half of the airline's shareholders to vote against an earlier payout to directors.

That was only an advisory resolution, but this year he is venting fury about a pay deal that could award 10 executives shares worth £8m over the next three years.