Air traffic control engineers “were at home watching morning television” on bank holiday Monday when the Nats IT system failed: that was the accusation from Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary during a Commons transport select committee hearing on Wednesday.
Martin Rolfe, chief executive of Nats, rejected the claim, saying: “We are a very serious organisation. That would never be the way that we would operate.”
Both CEOs were questioned by MPs at a special session of the committee about the bank holiday systems failure.
The main and back-up computer systems that normally assist air traffic controllers failed around 8.30am on the morning of 28 August 2023. The cause was later found to be a “rogue” flight plan for a French aircraft flying from Los Angeles to Paris, which contained duplicate “waypoints”.
Nats engineers solved the problem about eight hours later. For much of that time, air traffic controllers were obliged to revert to manual handling – reducing the capacity of UK airspace by 85 per cent.
The failures led to more than 2,000 flight cancellations, affecting over 300,000 passengers.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, condemned the delay between the initial failure and when carriers were alerted shortly after 11am. He said that with more notice, airlines could have put emergency procedures in place much earlier. “There was a three-hour window wasted,” he said.
Mr O’Leary described the Nats boss as “vastly overpaid and incompetent” and said Mr Rolfe “should resign or be sacked” after the incident.
“Like most airlines we didn’t find out from Nats, we found out from Eurocontrol shortly after 11am,” he said. “The numpties at Nats didn’t tell us. We had to find out from someone else that they’d crashed their system.”
Mr Rolfe, 51, is on a £1.3m package, including a bonus of £280,000.
Nats said the standard procedure was for Eurocontrol, which oversees air traffic control across Europe, to communicate with airlines.
Sophie Dekkers, chief commercial officer of easyJet, said: “The first time we heard from Nats was a letter the following day.”
In total, her airline had cancelled around 600 flights. That is thought to have affected more than 100,000 passengers. She said 30,000 passengers had been re-routed by another carrier or on other forms of transport.