Irish aviation has lost a second summer, says airports chief

Dalton Philips insists air travel needs certainty on possible reopening as it requires a long lead-in time to begin its recovery

 Terminal 1 departures check-in at Dublin Airport during  the pandemic. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Terminal 1 departures check-in at Dublin Airport during the pandemic. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Air travel in the State could decline again this year, dealing a blow to the Republic’s competitive edge, DAA chief executive Dalton Philips warned on Thursday.

DAA, responsible for Cork and Dublin airports, lost €284 million last year as Covid-19 travel curbs cut passenger numbers by 78 per cent to 7.9 million from 35.5 million in 2019.

Speaking after the State company published its annual results, Mr Philips agreed that Irish aviation has lost a second summer.

“We probably could see passenger numbers falling below last year, which is quite staggering,” he predicted.

Cork and Dublin lost a further 5.1 million passengers in the first quarter of 2021.

He urged the Government to heed the industry’s pleas for a plan to begin reopening travel, arguing that this was vital to the Republic as a whole, and not just to DAA or aviation.

Mr Philips said air travel needed certainty from the Government on possible reopening as it required a long lead-in time to begin its recovery.“If other countries in Europe are giving that certainty, then we are at a competitive disadvantage.”

He pointed out that restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantines and a ban on non-essential travel, were out of step with the rest of Europe.

The EU is adopting a new version of a system begun last year that favours tests over quarantines and a digital green certificate to enable travel between states.

Mr Philips said the Government should clarify when the Republic would adopt the certificate.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen signalled recently that vaccinated travellers from the US could travel freely to the bloc.

The National Civil Aviation Development Forum, of which the DAA is a member, has set out steps for the restoration of travel to Government in a report.

Mr Philips said that the Department of Transport had acknowledged the document and came back with questions, including on how airports would manage passengers and social distancing.

“But we’re at a much higher level than that now,” he stressed. “What are the criteria for lifting mandatory hotel quarantines? What are the criteria for lifting the travel ban?”

He noted that Lyon, a city similar in size to Dublin, had no routes to the US, while the capital had 25.

Mr Philips predicted that the Republic would lose these advantages if the Government failed to act quickly.

Turnover

DAA said turnover tumbled 69 per cent last year to €291 million from €935 million in 2019.

Mr Philips said the airports were among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic.

“Dublin and Cork airports lost 27.6 million passengers last year, which is more than 5.5 times the population of the State. The last time that Dublin and Cork airports had fewer than eight million passengers in a calendar year was in 1994.”

Almost 1,000 people left DAA’s Irish business over the last year. The company cut operating costs by 42 per cent to €260 million.

DAA’s net debt rose €353 million to €783 million in 2020. Outgoing chief financial officer Ray Gray said that most of the cash was not due to be repaid until between 2028 and 2032. He pointed out that it was “well-positioned” going into the pandemic.

The company invested €270 million during the year, including on a new north runway in Dublin and screening facilities for aircraft hold baggage.

DAA has businesses in 15 countries outside the Republic, including Bahrain, Canada, Cyprus, India, Lebanon, and New Zealand. It has investments in Dusseldorf Airport in Germany and in Larnaca and Paphos airports in Cyprus.