Wednesday 23 August 2017

Airline chiefs square up to each other in tense clash at meeting

Aer Lingus boss Christoph Mueller
Aer Lingus boss Christoph Mueller
Ryanair's Howard Miller. Photo: Getty Images
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

Two of the country's leading aviation executives -- Aer Lingus boss Christoph Mueller and Ryanair deputy chief executive Howard Millar -- squared up almost toe-to-toe with each other during a charged confrontation at a high-profile investor conference in London, it has emerged.

Mr Mueller -- a former drill sergeant in the German army -- left a podium during the conference held in a room in the London Stock Exchange building in the heart of the city to stare down Mr Millar as he put questions to the airline boss.

Mr Millar -- a former rugby player and one-time member of Ireland's reserve defence forces -- was there to represent Ryanair's near 30pc stake in Aer Lingus. He is also chief financial officer of Ryanair.

Among the 70 or so people present in the room was Aer Arann chief executive Paul Schutz and the head of the Aer Lingus pilot union, Evan Cullen, who is a captain at the airline.

A raft of analysts from Ireland and the UK, as well as corporate financiers and investment professionals, were also attending the event.

One observer said the exchange showed that the relationship between Aer Lingus and Ryanair was "plumbing new depths".

Cover-up

Other sources dismissed the showdown as part of the normal cut and thrust of the airlines' dialogue with each other.

Mr Millar, reading prepared questions, asked Mr Mueller and the Aer Lingus board to make publicly available a recently completed internal report that Aer Lingus commissioned from Deloitte and law firm McCann FitzGerald into why its controversial 2008 leave-and-return scheme fell foul of the Revenue Commissioners resulting in the airline coming to a €30m settlement with the taxman.

Mr Mueller told Mr Millar the report wouldn't be made available. Mr Millar then accused the Aer Lingus board of a cover-up.

As Mr Millar continued to read prepared questions regarding issues surrounding a massive €400m-plus deficit at a pension scheme that serves 16,000 former and current Aer Lingus and Dublin Airport Authority workers, Mr Mueller left the podium holding a microphone and stood, said one person who was there, just a foot or two away from Mr Millar.

The exchanges between the pair became increasingly tense, as Mr Millar called for assurances that the airline wouldn't inject any more money into the pension scheme, and also for Aer Lingus to pay a €100m-plus dividend to shareholders.

Mr Millar canvassed the room asking if there was any investor who wouldn't be interested in receiving a dividend. As Mr Millar turned to face the audience to ask anyone not interested to raise their hand, Mr Mueller raised his.

"You don't matter," said Mr Millar.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary said at the airline's annual general meeting in Dublin yesterday that the airline could call for an extraordinary general meeting of Aer Lingus in order to push for the leave-and-return report.

He also sent an open letter yesterday to Aer Lingus chairman Colm Barrington reiterating Mr Millar's demands.

Irish Independent

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