Air traffic

Air traffic control boss ‘deserves £1.2m bonus despite travel chaos’

Britain’s state-backed air traffic control operator has insisted its boss deserves a £1.2million bonus because he is not responsible for the chaos inflicted on millions of holidaymakers this summer.

NATS, which is 49% taxpayer-owned, is maintaining the incentive payment to its chief executive Martin Rolfe despite massive disruption and thousands of canceled flights across the country.

The payment has raised concerns in the aviation industry, with executives warning it risks damaging its reputation in times of crisis.

An airline executive said: ‘The scale of the bounty is quite extraordinary and I think it will make many cringe, including NATS staff.

“After years in which airlines have had to pay significant price increases in the cost of air traffic control in the UK to cover the NATS pension deficit – making the UK one of the world’s most expensive in Europe for air traffic control service – it is really infuriating to see this..

“It’s the epitome of the old adage that ‘a monopoly is only bad until you have one’.”

The payout is part of a long-term bonus scheme covering the five years from 2015.

It was originally due to be paid in June 2020, months after the pandemic plunged the aviation industry into its biggest crisis ever. Mr Rolfe said he would postpone it ‘until a more appropriate time’ rather than waive the amount altogether.

By contrast, Luis Gallego, the chief executive of parent company British Airways, forfeited a £900,000 bonus in 2021 and cut his base salary by 10% following a backlash from investors.

In addition to the £1.2million that will eventually arrive, Mr Rolfe and finance chief Alistair Borthwick have received £245,000 in annual incentives for hitting cost and profit targets over the six months to March 2022, according to the latest NATS financial accounts.

Air navigation service providers (ANSPs), many of them state-owned, are facing a backlash from airlines for raising fees to recoup losses accumulated during the pandemic.

Operator fees are usually based on the number of flights they handle. And with Covid travel restrictions effectively shutting down the skies, revenues dried up but many costs remained.

Willie Walsh, the former British Airways boss and head of airline lobby group IATA, last year called a planned $2.3 billion increase in fees for operators around the world “outrageous” and would delay the recovery of the aviation sector.