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Investors watch airline rivals go toe-to-toe in tense stand-off

TWO of the country's top airline chiefs have had a heated showdown at a high-profile investor conference in London.

Aer Lingus boss Christoph Mueller and Ryanair deputy chief executive Howard Millar dramatically squared up to each other as over 70 international business people looked on. Observers described how the two aviation tycoons were involved in the tense confrontation last week which brought the top-level meeting to a close.

The exchange has plunged the relationship between the two airlines to new depths following further attacks from Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary yesterday. Ryanair has intensified its campaign on Aer Lingus over its refusal to pay a special dividend to investors.

Mr Mueller -- a former drill sergeant in the German army -- proceeded to leave a podium during the conference to square up toe-to-toe with his Ryanair counterpart.

Among the investors at the conference -- held in the London Stock Exchange -- were the head of the Aer Lingus pilots' union, Evan Cullen, and Aer Arann boss Paul Schutz. The frosty encounter was prompted by Mr Millar's claim that Aer Lingus was involved in a "cover-up" on the controversial leave-and- return scheme by not releasing the findings of a review to shareholders.

The scheme was rolled out in 2008 and involved more than 700 staff leaving the company -- to return weeks later on inferior terms and conditions.

It resulted in Aer Lingus falling foul of the taxman and a €30m settlement with the Revenue Commissioners. Mr Millar asked his counterpart and the Aer Lingus board to publicly release a 2008 internal report which investigated why the costly scheme was put in place. But Mr Mueller hit back and reaffirmed Aer Lingus's position that the report would not be made available -- prompting Ryanair's accusations of a cover-up.


As Mr Millar continued to quiz his counterpart over a massive €400m plus deficit arising from a pension scheme, Mr Mueller left the podium holding the microphone and stood just one or two feet away from him.

The exchanges between the pair then became increasingly tense, with the Ryanair executive calling on those in the room to speak up if they would not be interested in being paid a dividend on their investments.

And As Mr Millar turned to face the audience to ask anyone not interested to raise their hand, Mr Mueller raised his instead.

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

Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary said at the airline's AGM in Dublin yesterday that the airline could call for an extraordinary general meeting of Aer Lingus to push for the internal report to be published. He also sent an open letter to Aer Lingus chairman Colm Barrington reiterating Ryanair's demands.