Dublin Airport operator DAA repeatedly pleaded not to be hit with fines because of lengthy queues at the airport, saying it could compromise security.
In correspondence from earlier this year with the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR), DAA said its emphasis had to remain on safety rather than waiting times.
And it said any overemphasis on queuing times risked the potential for non-compliance with stringent European Union rules on security.
In letters to CAR, DAA wrote: “Our focus in security is to ensure that something does not get on an aircraft that shouldn’t, complying fully with all European and Irish regulations.
“While we do not want any passengers delayed coming through the screening process, our focus cannot prioritise this over passenger security and safety.”
Dublin Airport managing director Vincent Harrison added: “The reintroduction of fines increases the risk of focus being leaned too heavily on queue times, resulting in potential non-compliance with regulations.”
DAA appealed for a ‘force majeure’ saying that the impact of Covid-19 had been so severe that there were no further reasonable steps it could take to improve waiting times.
The correspondence with CAR runs from January to April in which the airport operator made its case monthly for fines not to be applied.
In every month, CAR agreed to its request saying it was clear Covid-19 continued to have an impact on operations.
By April, CAR told DAA that it was “crucial” it take all steps available to them to comply with targets for security queues.
A letter from CAR director of markets and consumer policy Adrian Corcoran said: “We expect that there will be improvements in the queue times in the coming weeks as the effects of the many mitigation measures that have been put in place materialise.”
While wait times at the airport improved later in April and into May, chaos engulfed the airport last weekend when hundreds of passengers missed their flights.
DAA was also told that queue times were now hitting Ireland’s international reputation and executives were summoned to meetings with Government Ministers.
The first of the four letters to CAR was sent in January when DAA said Covid-19 and “close contacts” had put significant pressure on staff resources.
It said absence levels had been up to 30 per cent and that it faced a competitive market in trying to recruit additional staff.
In response, CAR said it agreed that a ‘force majeure’ event had taken place and that the impact was likely to be high due to the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
In February, DAA said Covid-19 now accounted for 65 per cent of all staff absences, that up to 22 per cent of people rostered to work security were out sick, and that this was 440 per cent of expected rates of absence.
By March, DAA continued to cite Covid-19 but said other factors including recruitment and delays in training new staff member were also causing issues.
It said it was working on new roster models that would allow it to better scale resources up and down according to passenger demand.
April’s letter again asked for fines to be waived, saying challenges now included a marked increase in the discovery of prohibited items during screening, refamiliarisation of the travelling public with security processing, higher than forecast passenger demands, as well as Covid-19.
It wrote: “We must not lose sight of the fact that our focus in security is to ensure that something does not get on an aircraft that shouldn’t, with the primary objective being to comply fully with all European and Irish security regulations.”
It has since emerged that Dublin Airport this year failed two security audits by the European Aviation Safety Authority in four months. This has meant staff are now obliged to carry out additional swabs for explosives on passenger luggage to satisfy EU safety requirements.
The correspondence between DAA and CAR had originally been withheld by the commission, which said the letters were confidential and exempt from release.
However, it was released following a successful appeal under Freedom of Information legislation.
In a statement, CAR said: “Due to the high level of staff absences at Dublin Airport due to Covid-19 in January, February and March of this year, the commission waived the potential penalty effect on the maximum level of per passenger airport charge.
“From the start of the summer season, the commission has indicated to DAA that it is less likely to waive penalties unless extraordinary circumstances exist. We have yet to consider possible extenuating circumstances in relation to events since the start of the summer season.”
Asked to comment on the records, DAA did not respond.