Airport authority has no rival and rules the skies — this has created a culture of laziness
Crisis over. Dublin Airport is operating. Ireland’s reputation is redeemed. The chaos was a blip. It’s back to normality at the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) . No passengers will miss their flights in future. And the DAA bosses are very, very, very, very sorry.
“Back to normality” at Dublin Airport is a return to the familiar, thoroughly unpleasant travel experience. Getting out of bed to catch a flight at 3am; a three-and-a-half-hour wait; expensive parking; blocked loos; rip-off restaurants; luggage delays and soaring blood pressure. It probably takes the average DAA victim 24 hours to regain their sanity.
The DAA narrative about the mayhem last weekend, that it was all down to one monumental cock-up, is nonsense. Seventeen staff, rostered to work the security lanes, were not qualified; 20 others didn’t show up. That’s sorted. The security staff numbers will be fine in future. The bank holiday weekend is working well. The DAA is very sorry about the 1,400 unlucky passengers sent home last weekend. Elegant marquees have been installed to shelter the overflow of passengers.
Calm down. As Micheál Martin loves to say, “lessons have been learned”. They haven’t.
An identical cock-up will not happen again, of course. A different cock-up will occur. Overcrowding in the airline business is a serious affair, whether it be on the ground or in the air. The dangers are multiple. Dublin Airport is too small, staff are too scarce and the skies above are crowded.
Normal complacency will resume shortly. That is the trouble. A few extra skilled staff will not sort the chaos at Dublin Airport. Politicians, senior staff and civil servants refuse to acknowledge the ingrained malaise out there.
The DAA is a state monopoly, a self-satisfied dinosaur with scores of overpaid, unaccountable decision- makers with a non-commercial, secretive culture that is a legacy of its history as a monolith.
The DAA has no competitors. It owns and operates the passenger terminals in Dublin, totally monopolising Ireland’s air travel — 84pc of air traffic goes through Dublin. No one else is allowed to build an airport, or even a terminal, in the capital. Worse still, the DAA monopoly is sacrosanct, beloved of politicians and mandarins alike. Lack of competition creates a lazy culture, a false confidence, a smugness that leaves the consumer relegated to the back of the queue.
The state monopoly comes first, executive pay second, the travelling public — with no choice — last. Politicians and civil servants comply with the doctrine that the DAA must never face challengers.
If there had been an established independent third terminal up and running last weekend, would it have made a difference? You bet it would.
There would have been more capacity for passengers, with a choice of point of entry and exit. Airlines would have been able to decide where they would take off and land. The DAA would have been forced to smarten up its act. Currently, passengers and airlines are prisoners of the DAA.
As transport minister with responsibility for the DAA from 2016 to 2020, I can honestly say it was the biggest headache of all 26 semi-state bodies under my umbrella. The DAA would no doubt reply in kind. Former ministers had been captured. Civil servants were infatuated. It was the ultimate dinosaur.
The relationship between the DAA and the Department of Transport reminded me of the days when Des O’Malley famously described the Department of Transport itself as the “downtown office of Aer Lingus”. Since Aer Lingus left the warm womb of the semi-state, the DAA has willingly filled the void.
We had two big battles with the DAA: the fight to bring in a third terminal and the board’s refusal to release meaningful figures about executive pay. The result was one-all. They thwarted the third terminal, but had to release — despite their hatred of transparency — figures on executive pay that today show at least 13 people at the monopoly being paid more than €250,000 a year.
The empire is safe. On the third terminal project, the DAA was joined by a deeply conservative civil service, terrified of the unknown. All they had to do was delay the project until a less irritating replacement minister arrived. And then Covid rode to their rescue.
Unfortunately, judging by their appearance before last week’s Oireachtas Transport Committee meeting, the DAA has no plan to cope with mushrooming air travel in the coming decades. Will they hire a few more security staff? Buy a few more marquees? Sticking plaster solutions beckon until the next catastrophe. The problem is far more fundamental. The absence of competition that worsens overcrowding is the key.
Current DAA policy is to apologise cravenly and keep the head down. Politicians will not disturb their peace. Nor will the mandarins. Ride out the crises. Covid might even return.
Committee chair Kieran O’Donnell did a fine job of fleshing out the immediate problems at the airport. Fianna Fáil’s James O’Connor, the able young TD from Cork East, and Clare senator Timmy Dooley asked the awkward longer-term questions.
O’Connor could be shot at dawn for not playing footsie with the political semi-state conspiracy. He wanted to call in the two transport ministers and the civil servants to find out what really happened. Dooley even hinted at the unmentionable: the DAA is anti-consumer; it forces passengers from outside the pale to travel through Dublin.
My second big tussle with DAA management was successful. They surrendered after a mighty battle in their attempts to keep the public — but particularly trade unions — in the dark about executive pay levels.
In that context, the DAA was unique. Dealing with the airport management and directors defending their empire from the threat of a rival independent terminal, while simultaneously attempting to keep the public in the dark about executive pay levels, left the supposedly intransigent transport unions looking like pussy cats.
The reputational damage to Ireland is done. A few marquees will not wipe out the memories of last Sunday’s scenes at the airport. They were merely the symptoms of a serious long-term problem. In the meantime, tourism is hurt and businesses will think again about locating here. The worst is yet to come.