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Ryanair CEO slams U.K. air traffic service’s explanation for meltdown that forced him to cancel 370 flights



Ryanair was among the many airline carriers that suffered from the brief, but far-reaching disruption caused by a technical fault with U.K.’s air traffic system. Now, following the publication of a report by the National Air Traffic Services on what caused the meltdown, Ryanair’s CEO has dismissed the explanation as “rubbish.”   

“This inaccurate and rubbish preliminary report is not acceptable,” Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary said in a video statement Wednesday posted on X, formerly Twitter.

O’Leary said that the report is laden with factual inaccuracies as NATS downplayed the number of canceled and delayed flights. NATS also said in its report that it wouldn’t reimburse or compensate airlines for the disruption caused as it wasn’t within its “remit.”

But the Ryanair chief called for the air traffic body to take responsibility for some of the costs that airlines incurred when helping their customers find alternate flights amid delays and cancellations.

“You don’t need a remit to do the right thing,” O’Leary argued in the video. “NATS should be providing reimbursement of those costs to the airline customers that we are providing to our customers that is hotel expenses, meal and restaurant vouchers and transport expenses as well.”

The Dublin-based low-cost airline could incur between £15 million ($19 million) and £20 million ($25 million) in the form of hotel booking and travel arrangements for affected passengers, O’Leary told the BBC, blaming NATS’s “lamentable incompetence.” 

He wasn’t alone in wanting some form of monetary reimbursement. Tim Alderslade, CEO of Airlines UK, an industry body that represents major U.K.-registered airlines including British Airways, Easyjet and Ryanair, said that while he welcomed the report, NATS should pitch in to help airlines.

“Airlines are seeking clarity on what options exist for NATS to cover our costs under the current legislation,” Alderslade said in a statement to Fortune. “We can’t have a situation whereby airlines carry the can every time we see disruption of this magnitude.”

The air traffic system’s meltdown, caused for a few hours on Aug. 28, 2023, clashed with one of the busiest travel days, falling on U.K.’s final bank holiday of the year. More than a quarter of all departures and arrivals at U.K. airports were canceled on the day, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium, and affected the travel plans of an estimated 250,000 people. Over a span of two days, Ryanair said 370 of its flights were canceled and 1,500 flights were delayed due to the meltdown and the resulting backlog.

What did the NATS report say?

NATS published a report on Wednesday that detailed its findings on what caused the technical problem in its system. The body characterized the “extremely rare” glitch—which it blamed on a confusing flight plan received by the system—as a “one in 15 million” event. 

The preliminary report said the flight plan matched European standards but had two identically named but separate waypoints markers outside U.K.’s airspace, which sent the system and its back-up into a fail-safe mode.

“I would like to reiterate my apology for the effects it had on so many people, including our airline and airport customers. Incidents like this are extremely rare and we have put measures in place to ensure it does not happen again,” NATS Chief Martin Rolfe said in a statement when the report was released.   

However, Rolfe also added that while the glitch was rare and unfortunate, it was a sign of the system working as it was meant to. The system, he told the BBC, did “what it was designed to do, i.e. fail safely when it receives data that it can’t process”.

When Fortune requested NATS for a comment following Ryanair’s rejection of its report, the group said it stood by its findings.

A number of airlines which were impacted by the air traffic disruption last week have raised concerns over NATS’s handling of the matter. 

Easyjet, a budget airline and competitor to Dublin-based Ryanair, saw scores of flights be delayed and offered refunds to its passengers. The company’s CEO Johan Lundgren questioned whether NATS was fit for its purpose, according to City A.M. 

International industry body IATA also said in a blogpost Wednesday that NATS management had “some serious explaining to do.”

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