National Air Traffic Services AGC: Blue-sky thinker

Darren Riley, assistant GC at National Air Traffic Services, deals with everything from volcanic ash clouds to international airspace agreements

Most general counsel do not find themselves in the somewhat tricky position of having to try to “get the whole world moving again”, as National Air Traffic Services (Nats) assistant general counsel Darren Riley did when the 2010 ash cloud wreaked havoc on global travel.

Fun chaos

Riley terms the episode “good fun”, but acknowledges that he felt the intense pressure of the situation at the time.

“You knew the pressure was on because it wasn’t just the UK – you had people who couldn’t get back into Europe or fly through Europe,” he recalls. “You felt the pressure of having passengers all around the globe stranded.”


Nats, an organisation that is usually allowed to exist in relative anonymity despite its crucial role, was suddenly in the glare of the national media.

“We had BBC and Sky vans parked outside our premises constantly,” Riley says. “It was entertaining because we had a new CEO. He’d been there less than two weeks and this was an unprecedented event. He went on Newsnight, still in his first two weeks – we put him up against Paxman, which is always entertaining.”

The first part of the Government-led mission to restore the airspace affected by the ash cloud was crisis management. Riley was engaged in conference calls with the Government, airlines and aeroplane engine manufacturers trying to understand the risks involved, liaising with trade unions and briefing the senior management team.

“It was a full-on seven-day period from the start of the crisis, working out what was going on and how the hell we were going to solve it, and then solving it,” Riley says. “When a solution started to appear we had to start working out how airspace was going to be reactivated and reused. We never closed it, so it wasn’t a question of reopening it. We had to correct processes and procedures for that literally overnight.”

Nats serves 31 countries and processed 2.1 million flights carrying 220 million people, last year. 

Riley arrived at the company in 2005 from insurer Norwich Union Healthcare.

He swapped a life as a defence lawyer at high street firm Staffurth & Bray for an in-house existence in 2001, having seen his firm go through the first round of legal aid contracting in 2000-2001, and seeing the writing on the wall for high street firms.

“I didn’t want to be a defence lawyer for the rest of my life and I’d just taken my firm through the first round of legal aid contracting – I could see the way things were going,” Riley says. “When I look at what has happened in the 12 years since I left I’m not surprised. I have a lot of sympathy and respect for the people working in that system, but I looked at it and thought it was not the way I wanted my career to go. I didn’t want to be in my 50s doing that for little money and working all hours.”

Riley had worked in-house before, as a paralegal at insurance company London & Edinburgh, acquired by Norwich Union (now Aviva) in 1998, when searching for a training contract, and was not enjoying the management aspect of private practice.

“I much prefer the in-house environment in terms of the longer term strategic planning and being more of a meritocracy,” he says. “There’s better management in in-house than I experienced in private practice.”

Besides dealing with ash clouds, Riley’s role involves leading the in-house legal team of six and advising on the company’ global commercial and knowledge-sharing activities.

“Nats is keen on taking things that work in the UK to the rest of the world,” he says. “ For example, consider the complexity of the airspace around London and the operational efficiencies of Gatwick and Heathrow, and apply that knowledge to places in the Middle East such as the UAE, which has substantive infrastructure, but is not a big place. You have Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, and all those airlines are trying to use that space. That’s not dissimilar to the challenges around London.”

Connecting flights

Riley was also responsible for engineering a north European alliance designed to unite the airspace of nine nations. Borealis is an agreement between Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Sweden and the UK. Brought about because of pressure from airlines to implement cost savings, the coalition was created to align airspace into a single block, with uniform charges for airlines using the space.

The balance between cost and quality of service is one with which Riley constantly battles. 

“In 2001 the average air traffic control delay Nats caused to a flight in the UK was around 50 seconds per flight”, he says. “That’s now down to around five. We’ve done that through technological and procedural advances, and improved safety too. But it has come at a cost, because of the investment.”

That cost is transferred to the airlines that fly through Nats-controlled airspace daily and demand ever more cost-saving initiatives and reduced costs. 

Riley acknowledges the cost to airlines, emphasising the balance that needs to be struck.

“That conversation is an ongoing one with the airlines,” he says.

Compared with battling a continent-sized ash cloud, that conversation sounds like a rather relaxing day at the office.

Darren Riley
National Air Traffic Services

Position: Assistant general counsel

Reports to: General counsel and company secretary

Total legal capacity: Eight

Total annual legal spend: £1.5m (approx)

Main external law firms: Bird & Bird, DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells, MacRoberts, Shoosmiths


Debbie Spragg
Senior legal counsel, Eurostar 

Safety is our number one concern. It is the starting point for all our operations. Competition law issues also give us plenty to think about. Eurostar has a strong market position for although we compete with airlines, we are the only international high-speed rail provider operating between the UK and Continental Europe. However, we are preparing for the arrival of competition, which will affect station and maintenance operations.

Regulation is increasing. In the UK we don’t always fit in the same box as the rail franchise operations so there are inevitably discussions with the Office of Rail Regulation about how things should apply to us specifically. For example, in the context of passenger information we know customers can choose not to travel with us if our service is not up to scratch, whereas commuters have less choice about how they get to work.

Social media has changed the way we interact with customers. We have a dedicated team sending out information and responding to customers’ queries or comments – and do we get nice comments as well as constructive feedback. We have certain frameworks and guidance in place for that team.

We recently announced our plans to run new direct services to Amsterdam from December 2016 and it is exciting to be involved in a project that is expanding the business. 

I joined Eurostar in March 2011 and have already done lots of work relating to our new fleet of trains, so it’s great now to be working on new routes too.