Britain’s Air Traffic Control body and its boss are under pressure to pay for the flight cancellation chaos that is set to cost £100million.
Tens of thousands of British families remain stranded across the globe as a result of the ‘staggering’ systems failure on Bank Holiday Monday.
Airlines are demanding a change in the rules – made possible by Brexit – to make the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) pay for the disruption that is its fault.
And there is pressure to strip its chief executive, Martin Rolfe, of windfall bonuses as a result of its role in the crisis.
His pay and bonuses doubled to £1.3million in the financial year ending March 2023, while he also holds shares worth more than £2.4million.
Calls are mounting for Air Traffic Control boss Martin Rolfe to admit his failings and be stripped of bonus
Misery on Majorca: The O’Neills and their children, from left, James, five, Sam, eight and Tilly, seven, were among hundreds of Britons still waiting to get home from Palma Airport yesterday
This included an annual bonus of £281,000 plus a second of £555,000. Mr Rolfe blamed the meltdown on the fact computer systems could not cope with a single piece of faulty data – rumoured to be a flight plan from a French airline.
But a top industry figure has cast doubt on the explanation. Willie Walsh, a former boss of British Airways who now runs the industry body IATA, said: ‘I find it staggering, I really do. This system should be designed to reject data that’s incorrect, not to collapse the system.
‘If that is true, it demonstrates a considerable weakness that must have been there for some time and I’m amazed if that is the cause of this.’
Mr Walsh said a full evaluation is needed, but added: ‘That explanation doesn’t stand up from what I know of the system.’
The crisis has triggered calls for NATS to be fined and for the introduction of a new compensation regime to make it responsible for covering the cost of its failures.
Mr Walsh said it is wrong that the estimated £100million bill for cleaning up the mess, which includes refunds, laying on emergency flights and covering the expenses of marooned travellers, will fall on airlines.
‘This was completely outside the control of the airlines and yet airlines are subject to paying customers for delays, for cancellations, for looking after them, which is very considerable,’ he said.
‘It’s very unfair because the air traffic control system that was at the heart of this failure doesn’t pay a single penny.
‘This is what really frustrates and angers airlines. In this case the problem was very clearly caused by NATS and they should pay.’
Asked what the crisis should mean for Mr Rolfe’s pay and bonuses, he said: ‘I have no doubt the board of NATS will be looking to hold management accountable for this failure.’
Other holidaymakers joined the long queues in the hope of getting checked in
One or two holidaymakers opted to sleep through the chaos
NATS is 49 per cent owned by the Government via a golden share, which gives it a major say in executive pay.
A group of airlines, including BA, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet, own 42 per cent, while staff hold 5 per cent. Around 1,800 flights have been cancelled due to the crisis, disrupting the travel plans of more than 250,000 people.
Holidaymakers hoping to get away also faced lengthy queues yesterday, as airports struggled to cope with the backlog of travellers disrupted by Monday’s outage.
An independent inquiry is due to report to ministers on Monday. Mr Rolfe, who lives in a £2million home in Hampshire, apologised for the chaos.
He dodged the question of whether NATS should cover the costs, saying only that there are well-established processes for working out who pays.
He also refused to respond to questions on his pay and bonus, saying: ‘At this point my focus is making sure we have recovered the system… We have been supporting and working very closely with the airlines to make sure we get everyone to their destinations.’
Stranded travellers have accused airlines of failing to offer support. In response, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: ‘It is important that airlines honour their obligations to passengers with regards to accommodation and flights to bring them back home.’
Rob Bishton, from the Civil Aviation Authority, said airlines have ‘a responsibility to look after’ passengers, and that passengers can claim many alternative accommodation and travel costs back.
NATS said Mr Rolfe’s bumper payday was due to ‘a reduced annual incentive’ the previous year, and a voluntary pay cut during Covid.