Up to 50,000 people are expected to make the trip home to Ireland by air for Christmas – but the traditional airport welcome has become another Covid casualty.
It comes amid warnings from Government and health officials for those abroad not to make the festive pilgrimage to be with family and friends this year.
December is likely to shape up to be one of the busiest months for air travel in and out of Ireland, if not the busiest, since the first lockdown in March.
Tens of thousands of people living in Ireland are also likely to leave for destinations in Poland and Spain, returning to their native countries.
Transport Minister Eamon Ryan last night reiterated the Government’s stance on travel from abroad.
“For those overseas, it’s not going to be an easy time. We’re not encouraging people to travel at Christmas. We know that this will be very difficult but we must do what we can to suppress the virus,” he told the Irish Independent.
Mr Ryan has previously signalled 10pc of usual festive air traffic is expected this year.
One industry expert said that based on the past nine months, close to 100,000 arriving and departing from Dublin Airport is a reasonable projection for the Christmas period.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has continued to urge people not to travel home for Christmas, despite the introduction of a Europe-wide traffic light system designed to make travel safer between countries.
“Probably, people will make a decision to come home,” he said on Thursday. “We’re still advising against all non-essential travel on and off the island, asking people who don’t reside here ordinarily and who are looking to come home to family for Christmas, to put that off for this year. It’s a difficult thing to ask people to do.”
Dr Holohan said he also wants people not to take short trips outside the country over Christmas.
With the numbers leaving the country, it might mean more people leave to enjoy Christmas elsewhere than arrive to visit family.
Last year, a record 1.2 million passengers passed through Dublin Airport’s in the two-week Christmas period, including arrivals and departures.
But the jubilant and emotive scenes that have played out for decades as emigrants journeyed home to relatives are, for this year, all but a ghost of Christmas past.
Passenger traffic at Dublin Airport, which last year handled almost 33 million passengers, has plunged by about 90pc.
The DAA, which operates Dublin and Cork airports, does not have any estimates yet for how many people it expects to use the capital’s airport between December 20 and January 3 – a typical period for which it forecasts numbers.
Ryanair said it has almost 350 flights scheduled to arrive in the week before Christmas. It said the majority are from the UK, Poland and Spain.
It’s almost certain the flights from Poland and Spain will be fuller leaving than when they arrived.
Each Ryanair 737-800 aircraft can carry 189 passengers. On average, its flights last month were 65pc full.
“Thousands of people have already booked their flight home for Christmas and we expect many more as further Christmas travel plans are made in the coming weeks,” said a spokeswoman.
At Cork, Ryanair is currently operating no services. However, it will fly three routes for Christmas from the city, to London Stansted, and Gdansk and Katowice in Poland.
From Dublin, Ryanair is operating services to 11 destinations in Poland over Christmas. Some of those routes are not currently flying and are only being reintroduced in time for the festive season. Warsaw and Krakow will be the busiest Polish destinations from Dublin.
Aer Lingus also declined to give specific information regarding the number of flights it’s operating over Christmas.
“Due to the current lack of demand for air travel, Aer Lingus is operating a much-reduced schedule” the airline said. “While some additional capacity has been added on some key routes such as Dublin-London Heathrow over the Christmas period, overall capacity is 25pc of last year.”
Nphet’s own figures show that foreign travel and possible foreign travel account for just 997 – or 1.36pc – of the total 73,045 confirmed Covid cases here as of last Thursday.
Ireland is part of the so-called traffic light system designed to facilitate safe travel between EU countries and regions, as well as the UK, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Most of the EU, as well as the UK, is rated red by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Ireland is rated orange. Red countries have the highest Covid incidence rates.
Both Ryanair and Aer Lingus said they’re hopeful the traffic light system will help boost air travel in coming months.
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It’s a festive season like no other for the Irish diaspora who have grappled with whether or not they would be making the trip home to see their loved ones this Christmas amid Covid-19 restrictions.