Ryanair’s chief operating officer is leaving the low-cost carrier, the first executive head to roll after a rostering debacle forced the airline to cancel thousands of flights and drew the ire of aviation regulators.

Michael Hickey, a 30-year Ryanair veteran and close to controversial chief executive Michael O’Leary, will leave the company at the end of the month, the airline said in a statement.

Mr Hickey’s responsibilities included the recruitment of pilots, who have been at the centre of the escalating crisis since a scheduled regulatory change in the airline’s holiday calendar left it without enough crew to man all booked flights. That role has been assumed by Eddie Wilson, chief people officer.

In a statement late on Friday, Mr O’Leary said the departing COO had made an “enormous contribution” to Ryanair since joining the business in 1988.

“He will be a hard act to replace, which is why we are grateful he has agreed to continue in an advisory role to smooth the transition to a successor,” Mr O’Leary said. The carrier refused to say whether Mr Hickey would receive a pay-off.

Mr Hickey’s departure comes as Ryanair works to contain the damage after it was forced to cancel 20,000 of its 80,000 flights between September and March.

The first, abrupt cancellation of 2,000 flights two weeks ago with little or no notice led to chaos for thousands of passengers who found themselves stranded far from home.

After days of confusion, the UK Civil Aviation Authority accused Mr O’Leary and Ryanair of deliberately misleading stranded passengers about compensation and rights to be rebooked on other airlines. It demanded the carrier rectify these breaches or face legal action.

Mr O’Leary has apologised, and the company’s latest update earlier this week stated that the 700,000 passengers affected by both the first cancellations and a subsequent scaling back of winter flights had now been informed of the changes and more than three-quarters had been recompensed or rerouted.

But the company still faces the challenge of overcoming its pilot shortage.

British and Irish pilots delivered a chilly response to a promise by Mr O’Leary this week to improve their pay and conditions in a bid to improve pilot retention.

In a letter sent to pilots on Thursday, Mr O’Leary promised them that the airline would exceed rivals’ rates of pay and improve job security.

Ryanair would deliver “significant improvements to your rosters, your pay, your basing, your contracts and your career progression over the next 12 months”, the letter said.

However, Brian Strutton, general secretary of British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), said on Friday that Ryanair pilots believed that Mr O’Leary “still doesn’t get” their grievances.

“Pilots from bases all over the UK have told us that they don’t want halfhearted excuses to shut them up,” Mr Strutton said.

“They tell us that they want genuine respect and for their European [employee representative councils] to be the recognised representative body for Ryanair pilots. Until they are given that, Ryanair will have a problem with its pilots.”

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