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


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:…

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