Martin Rolfe: Under-fire air traffic boss received £1.3m pay

London, UK. 30th Oct, 2018. Martin Rolfe, CEO of NATS speaking at the Airport Operators Conference being held at County Hall, London today (Tues) Credit: Finnbarr Webster/Alamy Live News
National Air Traffic Services chief executive Martin Rolfe received a £1.3m pay package. (Alamy) (Dorset Media Service)

The head of the UK’s air traffic control system has refused to say whether his organisation will pay money towards compensation to holidaymakers left stranded overseas by major flight disruption.

Martin Rolfe, the chief executive of National Air Traffic Services (Nats), has come under fire for what has been described as a “monumental failure”. It has seen holidaymakers stuck abroad for days while they wait for flights home.

When asked if he should personally contribute to compensation from his own pay package worth £1.3m last year - including a bonus of £280,000 - Rolfe told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s well-established processes for how customers are reimbursed for flights. Our focus over the course of the past few days has been to get our systems up and running.”

Read more:
UK flight disruption: your rights and what you are entitled to (The Guardian)
Follow all the latest live updates here (Yahoo News UK)
Air traffic boss reveals how flight chaos unfolded inside control room (The Independent)

Presenter Nick Robinson said the cost to the industry was “around £100,000,000” – and Rolfe was “paying absolutely nothing at all”.

Robinson asked: “Would it be reasonable for Nats to pay – perhaps that is something the Civil Aviation Authority would like to consider?

Passengers at Heathrow Airport as disruption from air traffic control issues continues across the UK and Ireland. Travel disruption could last for days after flights were cancelled leaving thousands of passengers stranded during a technical fault in the UK's air traffic control (ATC) system. Picture date: Tuesday August 29, 2023.
Passengers at Heathrow Airport as disruption from air traffic control issues continues across the UK and Ireland. (PA) (Lucy North, PA Images)

“Or should you pay? You’ve got a bonus of £280,000 last year on top of basic pay of £477,000. Is that not the sort of thing that you should maybe address now?”

Watch:Flight data received by air traffic services ’caused control fault’

Rolfe avoided answering the question, stating that his focus “has been entirely on making sure we have recovered the system”.

He added: “We have been supporting and working very closely with the airlines to make sure we get everybody to their destination as quickly as we can.”

Rolfe also oversaw air traffic chaos last year as thousands of holidaymakers faced days of delayed and cancelled flights due to staff absences and increased demand following the removal of COVID restrictions.

Nats insisted air traffic controllers were not to blame and said Rolfe deserved his £1.2 millon bonus – despite airlines and consumers facing price increases.

Martin Rolfe CEO NATS
Martin Rolfe was criticised for receiving a £1.2 million bonus last year despite delays and cancellations for holidaymakers. (PA) (Dorset Media Service)

His bonus, part of a five-year bonus dated back to 2015, was due to be paid out in June 2020 – as the UK was hit by a waive of COVID restrictions – but Rolfe said he would defer it "until a more appropriate time” rather than waiving the amount altogether.

A spokesperson said at the time: “The travel delays occurred outside the period covered in the annual report and were not caused by a failure of NATS services.”

Yahoo News UK has contacted Nats for a comment.

What caused the latest flight disruption?

A problem with inbound data was to blame for major flight disruption which left many holidaymakers stranded overseas, according to Rolfe.

Primary and back-up systems used by the company responded by “suspending automatic processing”, he said.

There has been speculation the air traffic control (ATC) failure was caused by a French airline submitting a flight plan to Nats in the wrong format.

A passenger looks at a departure board at Ferenc Liszt International Airport in Budapest, Hungary, as flights to the UK and Ireland have been cancelled as a result of air traffic control issues in the UK. Picture date: Monday August 28, 2023.
A passenger looks at a departure board at Ferenc Liszt International Airport in Budapest, Hungary, as flights to the UK and Ireland were cancelled. (PA) (Martin Rickett, PA Images)

Downing Street did not rule out that possibility, while Nats declined to comment on whether that was what happened.

Rolfe said: “Our systems are safety-critical systems, they are dealing with the lives of passengers and the travelling public.

“So even things like just throwing data away needs to be very carefully considered.

“If you throw away a critical piece of data you may end up in the next 30 seconds, a minute or an hour with something that then is not right on the screens in front of the controller.“

Are flights back to normal?

The impact of the chaos continued on Wednesday with at least a further 42 flights to or from Heathrow cancelled.

Many affected travellers are being told to wait several days for flights home.

Airplanes are grounded at London City Airport, in London, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. Britain's air traffic control system says it is experiencing a
Airplanes were grounded at London City Airport due to the air traffic issues. (PA) (Alberto Pezzali, Associated Press)

Some have been forced to sleep on airport floors or take long routes by land after their flights were cancelled.

Airlines were criticised for failing to book hotel rooms for many people who were delayed overnight.

EasyJet is operating five repatriation flights to Gatwick, with the first two setting off on Wednesday.