When Dervla McKay headed off on maternity leave from her job as managing director of Aircoach late last year all seemed pretty much right in the competitive world of Irish buses.
The transport company was enjoying the fruits of a growing tourism sector and the booming airport around which many of its services were focused. McKay was due back to work at the end of June in time for another busy summer season.
That, of course, was not to be. The pandemic hit transport hard. Many operators are struggling just to stay in business but being owned by UK transport giant FirstGroup PLC has provided a very welcome cushion, she says.
"Although Aircoach is running a significant loss, I do recognise that we are one of the fortunate ones. As tough as it is at the moment. I'm actually excited for what's ahead."
Entitled to maternity leave until the end of June, McKay worried as talk of Covid-19 increased in early March. When the schools shut, "passenger numbers went off a cliff".
"I didn't say anything to anyone. I just arrived back in to help deal with the crisis."
She and her team camped in the office for two weeks, effectively shutting down the business.
"That's what we had to do. We were carrying one and two customers on our services with all the costs of running a public transport operation."
Carrying on regardless would have cost the company a million euro in four weeks: "We needed to get it shut down ASAP. It was a traumatic time especially for those we had to temporarily lay off.
"You know, although Aircoach is part of a large PLC, I very much see it as my business. I didn't want to leave my team dealing with that. I had a lot of discussions with staff to temporarily lay them off. The staff were very understanding. They could see the numbers we were carrying. But clearly, they were absolutely devastated. They knew what it meant financially for them and their families. We had anger, we had tears, we had all of the emotions."
For two weeks she was in "get the job done" crisis management mode. But the enormity of what was happening took its toll: "I'm pretty resilient. I wouldn't be doing this job if I wasn't. But plenty of walks were had inside the 5km limit to keep the sanity going."
After two weeks all but 11 of Aircoach's 270 staff at its bases in Dublin, Cork and Belfast had been laid off. Of those, 100 staff are still not back in work and 37 have been deployed to FirstGroup in the UK.
For three months Aircoach was effectively in cold storage. At the end of July as restrictions eased and buses were permitted to carry 50pc loads, Aircoach restarted many services and brought drivers back on rotation. "Initially we were let run at 25pc capacity but there was no way the financial model on that would stack up. But when it went to 50pc and we restarted our Cork and Belfast services, I was pleasantly surprised at the numbers. There were days we were hitting mid-90s percentages of our available seats being sold."
Nevertheless, with schedules greatly reduced, during August it carried just 8pc of passengers compared to August 2019. And with Aircoach's focus on Dublin Airport - where it also provides a car park shuttle service for DAA - the collapse in the aviation sector has had a huge impact with a drop off in numbers again in September.
"It made more sense to get the vehicles back on the road than to keep them in the depot. But the recovery has been a lot slower than I'd anticipated."
But she is full of hope and plans for the future.
"We've not had to go to the bank like a lot of other private operators would have because FirstGroup stands over our bills. We've been running at a loss but I wanted to follow Government guidance but [also to] get our brand back out there and get people used to traveling by public transport. If a service could cover its own costs and make a small contribution to overhead then that was a bonus."
She was not overly surprised when Bus Éireann announced last week that it is to halt a number of its high-profile Expressway routes.
"Obviously we compete with them on two of the routes, Belfast and Cork, so I've a fair idea what passenger numbers they carry and what we carry. It's a highly competitive market."
Aircoach's services go directly via motorways between the major cities, whereas Bus Éireann serves intermediate towns along the routes. Trade unions blamed these non-stop services for fatally undermining the Bus Éireann services. McKay agrees it will be a challenge to replace services for passengers in towns along those routes but rejects the notion that giving private operators licenses was the cause.
"Personally, I think giving licences to private operators for services where there is demand is a great thing for customers. It gives them choice and encourages all operators on a particular route to ensure quality of service and good value fares which can only be a good thing for customers. Competition pushes companies to be innovative which benefits customers and grows the market which is to be encouraged if we are looking to move people to more sustainable modes of transport. If there is a social need for a service that is not already provided, that's what PSO [public service obligation or State subsidised] contracts are for."
McKay says that the arguments that Government has underfunded public transport for years and that passengers will always choose a faster, cheaper service, if it is available, are both valid. But, she says, what the Bus Éireann example starkly underlines is just how devastated the entire sector has been by the pandemic.
"It's probably one of many announcements to come over the next six months or so. I don't know that there'll be one quite as political. It's a State-run provider so was always going to make headlines. But there will be more news for sure."
Some private scheduled operations - although none run by Aircoach - have been brought under PSO support for a six-month period. This support will need to be extended to help smaller operators in danger of going out of business, she says. McKay does not expect State help for two of her own still-mothballed routes - from the airport to the southside of Dublin - given that the Government is telling people to avoid international travel.
"With limited funding, those type of routes will not be the priority, and no amount of me saying 'do this or that' would make it so. Funding needs to be spent on public transport but they need to be looking at smaller operators with one or two buses that employ five or ten people locally. They really need to consider what they want tourism to look like in this country. If that sector is really as important as the politicians say, then there is just not enough funding being set aside for it."
Aircoach management has used unexpected downtime for a complete strategy review.
"It would have been foolhardy not to," says McKay. "It is difficult because there's so many unknowns about how quickly aviation and tourism will recover. But we're looking at opportunities. And I have no doubt that there'll be consolidation in the market in Ireland with regards to public transport. That is something I'm sure operators will be looking at as part of their strategy - those that are in a position to make that investment."
Aircoach is one of those that can think ahead to life beyond Covid, she says. "We are very fortunate. We've the backing of a multinational PLC and Aircoach can absolutely play that long game. It doesn't give much comfort to the staff now that are temporarily laid off, mind you. And we're trying to stem the losses as best we can. But Aircoach has a bright future. It's just getting us to that bright future is the path to navigate."
Key to that strategy will be for Aircoach to "speculate to accumulate", says McKay.
"It's about seizing the right opportunities. There could be potential acquisitions because now might be the time when some operators are looking to sell their businesses. We're predominantly airport focused and need to diversify our business away from the east coast to be more resilient."
Asked if Aircoach would like access to key Bus Eireann bus stations such as Dublin's Busarus, Mc Kay responded: "If we're in a free market and there is free competition then I would say yes. But realistically, Busarus is fairly much at capacity so it could be complicated. But would I like to see access to bus stations more fairly distributed? Yes I would."
"If it gets to a stage, particularly where bus stations across the country are underutilized, it would be silly not to look at this," she said.
Aircoach was founded in 1999 by former Bus Éireann employee John O'Sullivan, who completed its sale to FirstGroup in 2005 for €16.5m. That same year McKay, from Glenties, Co Donegal, was in her final year of business and HR at Magee College in Derry and was offered a place on FirstGroup's graduate scheme in England.
"It absolutely fascinated me," she says. But her time in the bus industry was nearly over before it began: "You were supposed to learn to drive a bus. I couldn't because I'm pretty much blind in my left eye. I was their first ever graduate who couldn't get a bus license and they had a bit of a moment about whether I could stay or whether they'd have to terminate my employment."
The company changed its policies and McKay never looked back. She was appointed operations manager to its Devon division, followed by a more senior role in Cornwall.
"I was running the operation - recruitment, disciplining, customer complaints, hardcore people management. There were difficult days. I remember the first time I dismissed somebody. I was more nervous than the person I dismissed."
After various increasingly senior roles around the UK, McKay was appointed to run Aircoach in 2018. The Irish operation had recovered well from a tough time during the recession and McKay arrived with a focus on expansion and new technology. Little did she think when she left on maternity leave last year that she would have to rush back to let most of her staff go.
"How could it not pull on your heartstrings? Somebody is opposite you in floods of tears and you're telling them you've no work for them."
But McKay is not one for the rear-view mirror. She's watching closely for the shimmer of light she expects will appear on the road ahead.
Managing director of private transport operator Aircoach since April 2018
From Glenties, Co Donegal but lives in Skerries, Co Dublin
Business and human resources at Magee College, Derry (University of Ulster) followed by a graduate programme in bus operations with FirstGroup PLC
Most recently head of operations in Southampton for FirstGroup
Married to James with three small boys - Conor, Caolan and Fionntan
Favourite movie or TV show
Not one in particular but enjoys thrillers. Just finished watching The Fall on Netflix
Doesn't get time to read these days but was a die-hard Maeve Binchy fan when younger
Loves walking on the beaches near her home
How well has the bus transport sector coped with the pandemic?
Our sector genuinely has been one of the worst hit because, for example, the retail sector got a bounce after lockdown ended but there is no bounce in public transport at all because the Government is telling people not to use public transport for the reasons we all know and understand, whether or not we agree with them all. So there’s no possibility of a bounce when your Government is giving that advice.
Has the Government handled the situation well?
I don’t envy them. I’m glad I’m not the one making those decisions. With a second wave you don’t want to make things worse for the health system etc. But obviously, if you look at the statistics, only 2pc of current Covid cases are associated with international travel. It may of course be because travel is so restricted but it is terribly frustrating for us. We are hoping now that in October the Government will follow the European green traffic light system and open up more travel opportunities. It goes without saying, international travel and tourism are hugely important to the economy.