Lightning speed return of travel volumes to pre-pandemic levels has caught the DAA on the hop
‘We do an Ed Sheeran concert every day,” said Kevin Cullinane.
The head of communications at DAA (the Dublin Airport Authority) is walking me through Dublin Airport and the efforts under way to flip the “ghost town” of 12 months ago into a hub handling up to 110,000 passengers a day this summer – a volume even Ed might struggle to entertain.
The airport was caught on the hop last March, when Ireland scrapped its travel restrictions, aviation rebounded quickly and staff shortages led to long queues and passengers missing flights.
“Obviously we tripped over that hurdle on the last Sunday in March when the summer schedules kicked in,” Mr Cullinane said. “We’ve put our hands up.”
Since then, it’s been all hands on deck, security positions are being filled at rate of 30-35 a week, and the shortfall will be fully filled “by early June”, he said.
What will that mean for the passenger security experience?
“We’re mandated by the Commission of Aviation Regulation to have security queues of no more than 30 minutes. That’s where we want to get back to.
“Ninety-eight per cent of our passengers are now going through in under 45 minutes; 95pc are going through in under 30 minutes… it’s a bit like playing rugby, the final yards are always the hardest.”
But, he added, “we’re 100pc committed to it.”
It’s lunchtime, and Terminal 1 looks busy to me.
Some passengers dash through departures because they’re late.
Some dawdle in duty free because they are early.
There are squeals of delight as groups meet up; boarding calls in the air, and smartly dressed cabin crew glide through it all with teensy wheelie cases.
“You’re seeing a little bit of a lull,” Mr Cullinane said.
By now, we all know exactly what the opposite of a lull looks like.
Social media images of peak-time queues, grubby loos, litter and long lines for food and drinks have been regular since late March.
This week, after I visited, footage of a fight went viral. Complaints also continue about parking, food and taxi wait times.
But the goal is surprisingly ambitious: “We want the overall experience to be five star,” Mr Cullinane said.
Since late March, the priority has been to sort out security delays.
Cleanliness and other standards “may have slipped” as a result, the DAA has conceded.
“It’s not where we want to be. We want to correct that over the coming weeks.”
It’s not the only airport stretched by a travel rebound.
Queues have snaked outside terminals in the UK, Amsterdam Schiphol has asked airlines to cut capacity, and delays have frustrated passengers from Sydney to Toronto.
A recent survey by airline trade association ACI Europe found 66pc of European airports expect flight delays to increase this summer.
However, airline schedules were not a surprise, so why could Dublin Airport not anticipate this volume?
“We started recruiting back in October for this summer,” Mr Cullinane said.
They knew the number of flights coming through, but not the percentage of seats that were going to be filled.
“Most commentators were saying we wouldn’t get back to 2019 levels until 2024 or 2025,” he said. “It has come back much stronger than anyone anticipated.”
Passing through T1’s security channels, I watch people removing belts, fishing out liquids, stocking up trays. A circle of new security recruits listen to instructions.
“The average queue-time experience over a month is actually quite low,” Brian Callanan, head of terminal security, said. “It’s when you have those peak hours that are very high-profile that stuff happens.”
Mostly passengers are patient, he said. Others are anxious, or annoyed by the queues. But some have been verbally abusive.
“We had one fella spat at by a passenger. It is just born out of frustration.”
By June, all 300 new recruits will be in, although training will be ongoing, he said.
“There are very few jobs where on your very first day you’re told watch out for them bombs… in their training, that has to be their only focus. We do not want anything ending up on aircraft that shouldn’t.”
Mr Callanan expects Fast-Track to be sold on Dublin Airport’s website again from June or July (the channel is currently open to previous bookings, business-class passengers or those buying it on Ryanair’s website).
I ask if he has a message for passengers.
“Be prepared,” he replied.
Keep cabin baggage to a minimum is the tip, and refresh yourself on the security rules for liquids and other items.
“Just be patient, and please don’t take it out on our staff.”
About 300 companies employ 20,000 people at the airport, Mr Cullinane said, and all new staff have to go through what he calls “Garda vetting plus, plus, plus”.
“If I hire someone tomorrow, it’s four weeks before they can start working in the airport,” said Nora O’Shea, a general manager responsible for five airside food and drink outlets with KSG Catering.
Sitting for coffee at SoMa in T1, she talks me through challenges familiar to anyone working in hospitality: recruitment, rostering, rising costs, supply issues.
“I feel like I’ve been on a treadmill for the last 10 months,” she said. “That’s the honest-to-God truth… because each time you get one crisis done, the next one comes up.”
Passengers have complained of early-morning queues, a lack of options and high prices, but Ms O’Shea said many outlets have simply not had the staff to operate extended hours.
Nevertheless, she is upbeat, and said positions are being filled. There’s a camaraderie among workers, and though challenges will go on, a corner has been turned.
When I flew from the airport recently, I saw grim-looking ham and cheese sandwiches for €6.95 at one outlet. A pint of Guinness at SoMa is €5.95; a beef burrito at Street Kitchen, her busiest outlet, costs €10.50.
Is she happy there is good value and quality available?
“We benchmark against Dublin city prices,” Ms O’Shea said. However, she added that supplier costs “have gone through the roof”, and security measures add costs that high-street businesses don’t have to face.
But people can shop around, she said, and buy packages and meal deals. “There is value to be had at the airport.”
Another area in which value has been questioned is parking. The ongoing closure of the Quick Park facility has removed 6,000 spaces, the DAA said, and it claimed that “a modest increase” in gate prices is aimed at prompting passengers to book in advance.
A ministerial order has been sought to create temporary space for 3,000-4,000 cars on its campus, the Irish Independent can reveal, but parking is clearly going to be under pressure this summer.
“As we move into June, passengers should prepare for our car parks to be sold out between Thursday and Monday each week, with high demand also for the other days,” DAA spokesperson Graeme McQueen said.
Taxi availability at night is another issue, a challenge Mr Cullinane said extends across the country. For Dublin Airport, that can be felt most keenly after the last bus leaves at 1.25am – particularly when there are concerts or events in the city.
DAA has issued 256 new taxi permits, taking its total to 1,420, and introduced a trial taxi rebate scheme which could see drivers’ permit fees reimbursed if they take a minimum number of fares after 10pm.
As the Ed Sheeran-level summer crowds descend, DAA said its efforts are starting to bear fruit, with business lounge hours also extending, and a new northern runway scheduled to open “on time and on budget” in August.
But social media is watching. “Was it Angela Merkel or Leo Varadkar who said it was easier to close an economy than open it?” Mr Cullinane mused.
“Well, it’s definitely true of an airport.”