Ryanair CEO criticizes NATS over air traffic control debacle

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In a fiery exchange during today’s Transport Select Committee hearing, Ryanair’s Chief Executive, Michael O’Leary, vehemently criticized the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) chief, labeling their report on August’s air traffic control failure as “a complete tissue of nonsense” and “completely misleading.” The committee provided a platform for airline executives to share their perspectives, revealing discrepancies between their accounts and NATS’s version of events.

O’Leary, representing the Dublin-based carrier that constitutes around 20% of the UK aviation industry, dismissed NATS’s summary as a “tissue of lies, misinformation, and NATS should be asked to explain it.” He contested NATS’s claim that the incident was a “one in 15 million failure,” attributing it to a duplicate waypoint from an unnamed airline.

During the hearing, O’Leary disclosed that Ryanair experienced 1,000 flight delays on the day in question, contradicting NATS’s reported total of 575. He further asserted that other Air Traffic Control (ATC) providers routinely handled flight plans with duplicate waypoints and accused NATS of collapsing its system on a day when such incidents are typically managed without major disruptions.

This critique followed heated exchanges between O’Leary and NATS chief Martin Rolfe, with O’Leary calling for Rolfe’s resignation due to alleged “mismanagement and incompetence.”

A range of airlines, including Easyjet, Loganair, and the trade body Airlines UK, presented evidence to the MPs. Tim Alderslade, head of Airlines UK, emphasized the “unprecedented” impact of the failure, resulting in 1 million minutes of delays and numerous cancellations. Alderslade criticized NATS for poor communication, noting that formal communication from the group did not arrive until the day after the incident began.

The aviation sector faced significant disruption during the incident, which started at 8:30 am and persisted until 2:30 pm, with restrictions lingering until 6 pm. One airline reportedly had half of its entire program canceled, and others claimed to have learned about the situation through media outlets such as Sky News and Eurocontrol.

O’Leary estimated Ryanair’s compensation costs for passengers at approximately £15 million and demanded reimbursement from NATS. He urged NATS, whose stakeholders include airlines, pension funds, and the UK government, to redirect funds that would otherwise be allocated for dividends toward compensating airlines for the incurred expenses.

The Transport Select Committee is expected to further investigate the conflicting accounts and the broader implications of the air traffic control failure.