Michael O’Leary accuses Nats boss of ‘incompetence’ in furious row over air-traffic control failure

‘Your system engineers were sitting at home drinking tea instead of being onsite and ready to deal with a total system failure,’ says Ryanair boss in heated exchange of letters

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 18 October 2023 09:26 BST
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Related video: Michael O'Leary of Ryanair defends no-compromise airport policies

Just ahead of a hearing about the UK-wide air-traffic control failure on 28 August 2023, a furious exchange of letters between the bosses of Ryanair and Nats has been revealed.

The Transport Select Committee published the correspondence between Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary and Martin Rolfe, CEO of Nats, the air-navigation provider, just ahead of a session about the shutdown.

In the exchange, Mr O’Leary demands the resignation of Mr Rolfe, who he accuses of “mismanagement and incompetence”. In response, Mr Rolfe describes the approach as “abrasive” and that “for me to respond directly would normalise this behaviour as a way of doing business, which is not something that any responsible business leader would want to do”.

Both men are due to give evidence to MPs about the events of that bank holiday Monday. The main UK air-traffic control computer system and its back-up failed for several hours.

By the time Nats engineers solved the problem, the outage had led to 1,600 cancelled flights on the day. Around 400 more cancellations followed over the next few days due to planes and pilots being left out of position.

The exchange begins with a letter from Eddie Wilson, chief executive of the airline’s main operating unit, Ryanair DAC. On 19 September he wrote to Mr Rolfe: “Our passengers continue to have their travel plans unnecessarily disrupted because of Nats’ mismanagement of both the en route and terminal airspace across the UK.

“Ryanair is Nats’ largest customer, paying in excess of €100m [£87m] each year. This self-inflicted collapse would have been avoided had these funds being correctly managed by investing in the adequate infrastructure.

“Nats have a track record that runs as far back as 2004 regarding IT failures, which clearly have not been addressed by the current management team.”

Mr Rolfe of Nats responded on 6 October, writing: “On the basis that Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, has made clear that Ryanair is contemplating legal proceedings against Nats it would be inappropriate for us to enter into correspondence on matters concerning our operations and performance at this time.”

Four days later, Mr O’Leary weighed in, with a letter copied to both his colleague Mr Wilson and the transport secretary, Mark Harper. He described Mr Rolfe’s response as “unacceptable” and said: “Ryanair is your largest customer, paying Nats almost €100m per annum and we are entitled to expect responsive and transparent answers to reasonable questions.”

The letter details a series of what the airline perceives as resourcing failings on the part of Nats, and ends: “Please now confirm what action you intend to take to honour your personal assurances that short staffing will not be an issue in UK Nats.

“Your continuing mismanagement of Nats despite receiving over £1.3m in pay and bonuses, is acceptable. Either do your job, or leave and let someone competent do it.”

On 16 October, Mr Rolfe wrote back: “I acknowledge that Ryanair is a large customer of Nats (En Route) plc and has its own way of communicating.

“However, this abrasive approach is not acceptable. For me to respond directly would normalise this behaviour as a way of doing business, which is not something that any responsible business leader would want to do.”

He rebutted a number of accusations from Mr O’Leary and ended: “Independent data published by Eurocontrol clearly demonstrates that Nats’ en route service consistently provides the lowest network delay among its European peers, with no strike action and ever-reducing prices in real terms. These facts are the result of the hard work, pride and professionalism of all the staff at Nats.”

The following day, Mr O’Leary wrote back – extending the cc list to include Transport Select Committee chair Iain Stewart MP – saying: “Thank you for your letter dated 16 October, which as usual, is another example of obfuscation and avoidance of responsibility for your mismanagement and incompetence.

“I regret you find our approach ‘abrasive’. It is unacceptable that you continue to distract and mislead, but then your system failure of 28 August cost Ryanair over £15m in right-to-care expenses. We are fully entitled to be ‘abrasive’, which does not excuse your repeated failure to answer the simple customer questions put to you.”

The Ryanair chief executive lists more questions, and adds: “You have failed to explain why your system engineers were sitting at home drinking tea instead of being onsite and ready to deal with a total system failure which you presided over on 28 August.”

The two CEOs are booked for successive panels at the Transport Select Committee session, and are certain to meet at the venue: the Boothroyd Room at Portcullis House in Westminster.

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