Sunday 17 December 2017

Eoghan Corry: Join Schengen and all our airport queueing issues are over

Paris' Orly airport. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
Paris' Orly airport. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Eoghan Corry

Delays at European airports are one of those annual summer inconveniences, like a mosquito bite, finding a towel on your sunbed or a teenager in the wrong time zone.

That they are big news this weekend is a reflection on the changing politics of European aviation.

Europe's five biggest airlines, two of them headed by Irishmen, have called on the EU to do something about the delays, which they say can run to four and five hours.

They say passengers are victims of "the disproportionate impact that the implementation of a new EU regulation," that means everyone has to be counted in and out of the Schengen zone, to where almost all Irish people go on their holidays. Each passport must now be scanned. The polite wave through is no longer possible. Each passport must be scanned against a central database.

The regulation about which they whine is four months old. It came into use on April 1. So why now?

There are three reasons. Firstly, the regulation is having a disproportionate impact on regional airports, those airports which go from a trickle to a torrent when schools break for holidays. A lot of Ireland's sun routes are seasonal, Ryanair has 22 and Aer Lingus 20 from Dublin alone.

Michael O'Leary
Michael O'Leary

Secondly, security regulations have been tightened, sometimes at national level, sometimes at regional and sometimes at airport level. Politicians and airport management like to tell people they are making travel more safe, even if they are only rearranging security scanners and employing a few extra sniffer dogs.

In the last fortnight, US-bound flights were subject to extra security restrictions.

These, often arbitrary, regulatory changes and work practices can turn a free-flowing airport into a three-hour nightmare, as happened across the USA in summer 2016.

Read More: Passengers in line for 'crazy' airport delays

Thirdly, changing travel fashions are sending even more tourists to the busiest airports in the busiest countries instead of dispersing them.

As Germans became concerned about security in Turkey, millions of them moved to Spain and Portugal. Russians, largely absent from sunbeds in 2016, have returned in big numbers. Tunisia and Egypt are inaccessible from Ireland, Britain and Belgium.

The Irish, too, are travelling more. Last week's CSO figures indicated Ireland's outbound travel was up 7.3pc and they are concentrating even more on Spain and Portugal, where visitor numbers from Ireland are up by 11pc and 13.8pc respectively for the first half of the year.

Dublin Airport had just one day when it handled 100,000 passengers in the first 75 years of its existence.

It has had 30 so far this summer. This is creating logjams all over the airport, through security, US pre-clearance, passport control and in facilities such as car parks.

Dublin's problems are dwarfed by those at some of the regional airports across Europe that chased fast growth, courting airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet to deliver millions of passengers to please local politicians and tourism interests.

Airport infrastructure is expensive and slow to catch up. Even the bigger airports are bursting at the seams, with lengthy queues arising from under-staffing, miscalculation or the technical glitches that haunt the highly automated worlds of check-in, boarding and baggage claim.

The fact that airlines are complaining about delays is ramping up pressure on the EU to control its airports. Despite many lofty aspirations emanating from the EU, air traffic control and airport regulation is still an anarchic state across Europe.

Michael O'Leary, Willie Walsh and their colleagues Jean-Marc Janaillac, Carsten Spohr and Carolyn McCall want the EU to shake the entire system into life and are involving their passengers to do so.

Read More: Why are there suddenly queues?

There is a solution, but it is somewhat complicated. Irish passengers would be better off in every respect if we joined the Schengen region.

Ireland is not in Schengen for reasons that are pretty simple. When Leo Varadkar was transport minister he said we want to be in Schengen, but while we have a land border with stridently anti-Schengen Britain, we cannot. With Britain out and Northern Ireland still hanging in limbo, we had no choice.

How that particular landscape will change by March 2019 is as unclear as can be imagined. If Britain pulls out of the EU, staying out of Schengen may no longer be an option.

In Irish Brexit is called Breat-imeacht, which sounds pejorative. Across Europe they are calling it B'riddance (good riddance to the Brits).

Brexit may exacerbate border problems for us while we are in a separate visa region.

There is a clear option for Ireland to get rid of the airline queue problem.

Join Schengen.

Over to you, Leo.

Irish Independent

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