Airports had little time to prepare for post-Covid surge, says industry chief

Irish regulators among those trying to cut charges while demanding more investment by airports, says president of Airports Council International

European airports had little to time to prepare for governments’ lifting of Covid curbs or the surge in travel that followed, according to a leading aviation industry chief.

Javier Marín, president of Airports Council International Europe (ACI), told the organisation’s conference on Thursday that demand for travel beat expectations while businesses in the sector struggled with labour shortages.

Dublin Airport is racing to hire security officers as Irish people head overseas following two years of restrictions, while ground -handling and other service businesses also confess that they face staff shortages. Bottlenecks in airports across Europe, including London, Amsterdam and Paris, have forced airlines to cancel some flights.

Asked if the industry could have been better prepared, Mr Marín said: “I honestly do not think so.”

He argued that governments gave airports little notice of decisions to lift restrictions, so they had little time to ensure they had the resources to cope with increased demand for travel.

Mr Marín, who oversees 47 airports across Spain for Aena, including Malaga and Ibiza, noted that aviation was no longer considered to be as attractive an employer as it was in the past. “When you look at ground handling in particular, we have to find a better balance between competitiveness and the social sustainability of the employment on offer,” he said.

He argued that many of those airports worst hit received little financial support during the pandemic, or had faced pressure from airlines and regulators to cut their charges before Covid struck.

Addressing the conference in Rome, Mr Marín pointed out that Irish regulators were among those seeking to keep airport charges low while expecting the facilities to invest. Dublin Airport owner DAA is seeking increases in passenger charges to pay for investment it says is needs for the future.

“Any company must take the steps necessary to remain a viable business,” said Mr Marín. “As airlines are increasing their fares to passengers as they recover, so must airports be able to increase charges to their customers too.”

Mr Marín argued that regulators should allow airports recoup Covid losses. “It is a financial delusion that airports can continue to sustain these losses and yet still invest for the future. Regulators still too often confuse airline interest with consumer interest – at the expense of airports.”

Meanwhile he warned that European states, let alone the world as a whole, had no agreed approach to dealing with a new Covid variant should it emerge.

“We know that travel restrictions have been ineffective at preventing the spread of Covid-19,” said Mr Marín. “This has been recognised formally be the World Health Organisation, and reflects the simple fact that whenever a new variant is identified it has already been circulating internationally and domestically for several weeks or even months.”

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