Thursday 8 December 2016

Looking up: how economic recovery gave airport lift-off

It's been Dublin's busiest year, but how bright is the future?

Graham Clifford

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

Comings and goings: Graham Clifford at a busy Terminal 2 in Dublin Airport as the Christmas season kicks in. Photo: Mark Condren.
Comings and goings: Graham Clifford at a busy Terminal 2 in Dublin Airport as the Christmas season kicks in. Photo: Mark Condren.
'Airport operators have to take the long-term view and that’s what was done in Dublin'

'Come on Ma, hurry up, he'll be through any minute," urges an excited young boy as he rushes past me to the arrivals gates at Dublin Airport's Terminal 2.

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He has a 'Welcome Home' balloon in hand and a red Santa hat sits precariously on his head. Five minutes later he's embracing his father, who has just returned from Chicago. There are tears of joy, high-fives and kisses.

Scenes such as this will be replicated in airports across the country in the coming fortnight as Irish people living and working overseas return home and into the arms of their adoring families to celebrate Christmas. Arrival halls will be hives of activity - but for some airports, 2015 has already been a hectic year from start to finish.

Last week, Dublin Airport announced that this year had been the busiest in its 75-year history, with an incredible 23.5 million passengers using it. And those figures didn't include December and the inevitable Christmas rush. It's expected passenger numbers will pass the 25-million mark in 2016. The airport's previous busiest year was 2008, with 23.46 million passengers. Back then, travellers crammed into the old terminal building - now Terminal 1.

But five years ago last month, on November 19, 2010, the new state-of-the-art Terminal 2 was unveiled at a cost of €600m to a nation on the brink of economic disaster. As Brian Cowen beamed for the cameras, the troika were checking into their Dublin hotels. The timing was unfortunate - or was it?

"Of course there was a lot of controversy when Terminal 2 opened on that day, with the troika having just arrived in the country," admits Siobhan O'Donnell, the Dublin Airport Authority's (DAA) Head of External Communications, but, she adds, "from our point of view though, we couldn't stop expansion because of the recession because we knew this was infrastructure that was vitally needed. Airport operators have to take the long-term view and that's what was done here. Expansion can be costly and take time but is a once-in-a-generation event."

The foresight appears to have been spot-on. In the last five years, 46 million people have travelled through Terminal 2 alone.

The continuous growth at Dublin Airport since 2010 is down to a combination of factors. Undoubtedly, Terminal 2 increased capacity but the gradual upturn in the country's economic fortunes, the vigorous pursuit of new routes and airline partners, the expansion of existing services and a weakening euro have all helped. Long-haul connectivity from Dublin Airport has increased by 65pc since Terminal 2 became operational and 17 new long-haul services have been developed since 2010.

The airport now serves around 170 destinations into 38 countries on four continents. Next year, chartered flights will fly directly to Jamaica and Mexico.

The DAA and Aer Lingus have worked together to promote Dublin as a connecting hub in British regional airports.

"Dublin is the only European capital city airport which offers United States Customers and Border Protection (USCBP) clearance. That's a huge selling point for us," explains Siobhan.

Economist and Senator Sean Barrett tells Review that Dublin has also benefited from an increased volume of passengers from North of the border.

"The ability of Dublin Airport to draw traffic from Northern Ireland is strengthened by the decline in the value of the euro. Northern Irish registration plates feature prominently in the airport car parks today. Also, the devaluation of the euro compared to the dollar and sterling has clearly stimulated growth," says the senator.

But he also warns that the BA/IAG takeover of Aer Lingus could have a serious impact on Dublin Airport, and its connectivity, in the future.

"It reinstates the Heathrow-Ireland monopoly which so many economists campaigned against for decades," he says. ''British Airways has a poor record of developing North Atlantic routes from Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh, in contrast to the dynamism of the old Aer Lingus in developing North Atlantic routes out of Dublin and Shannon."

The end-of-year report for Shannon Airport is also largely positive. It's estimated that just over 1.7 million people will have used the western-seaboard airport by the end of 2015 - up from 1.39 million in 2012, just before the airport left the DAA to become a standalone entity.

With services to 33 destinations, a new Aer Lingus regional route to Edinburgh commencing in March and an increase in frequency of flights to the likes of Birmingham, Heathrow, Faro and Malaga, the airport is predicting further passenger growth next year.

While passenger numbers at Cork declined in 2015 (from 2.14 million in 2014 to 2.07 million this year), its foundations were greatly strengthened in recent months following a series of positive announcements.

CityJet now have a base there, flying directly to London City, while Aer Lingus Regional will fly direct to Southampton and Leeds Bradford from next year. Cork will also see new services to Boston and Barcelona with Norwegian Air, to Dusseldorf with Aer Lingus, Madrid (Iberia Express) and Menorca, Nantes and La Rochelle (CityJet).

The airport is forecasting growth of 8pc in 2016 - a figure which, if achieved, would deliver 2.2 million passengers.

Meanwhile, Ireland West Airport tells Review that they expect 2016, when they will celebrate their 30th year in existence, to be their busiest ever. Flybe recently announced new routes from Knock to Birmingham and Edinburgh for next year. Passenger numbers for 2015 will reach 703,000.

There is also optimism in Waterford. Desmond O'Flynn, the Chief Executive of Waterford Airport, says: "Our projection for the full year is that some 33,000 passengers will have flown through the airport in 2015. Our aim for 2016 is to build on this base and to add capacity on our UK services in particular."

Passenger figures are up in Kerry, where it's projected 307,000 will have used the airport this year compared to 295,000 in 2014.

Back in Dublin Airport, Chris Rea's 'Driving Home for Christmas' fills the air at Terminal 2 and while the mode of transport may not be quite accurate - the sentiment certainly is. Home to a country where, after many difficult years, our airports appear to be fighting back, with Dublin leading the charge.

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