DAA chief executive Dalton Philips is leaving the State airports company for sandwich maker Greencore, sparking speculation about a likely successor.
The company responsible for Cork and Dublin airports said it would begin an “immediate” search for a replacement after confirming on Friday that Mr Philips was leaving.
Observers suggested that the board, chaired by Basil Geoghegan, could once again look outside the company for a new chief executive, as it has done since appointing Declan Collier to the job in 2005.
However, sources pinpointed several internal candidates thought to have a live chance of succeeding Mr Philips.
They include Niall MacCarthy, managing director of Cork Airport, and Vincent Harrison, who runs Dublin, as both have operational experience.
Nicholas Cole, chief executive of DAA International, who previously ran Heathrow's Terminal 5, and Ray Hernan, who leads retail arm Aer Rianta International, and previously worked for Ryanair, were also tipped.
Sources say that Catherine Gubbins, group chief financial officer, who has worked for DAA since 2014, is another senior figure likely to be in the mix.
Mr Philips is leaving after almost five years, during which he steered the business through the Covid-19 pandemic, which grounded air travel in 2020.
He will remain at the head of DAA through the summer, the first holiday season not to fall under the shadow of Government pandemic curbs.
Mr Geoghegan said the company handled record passenger numbers under Mr Philips’s tenure, before the virus shut air travel.
“Dalton and his leadership team navigated DAA through the most challenging period in the history of aviation,” he added.
During that time, Mr Geoghegan said the company cut costs and raised €1.15 billion in extra cash.
Mr Philips thanked DAA’s management and workers who “put their shoulder to the wheel throughout Covid”.
He added they were now working to bridge the gap between soaring demand and the restoration of full capacity, which is expected next month.
DAA has businesses in 15 countries. It also runs airport retailing through Aer Rianta International and airport management and consultancy through DAA International.
Mr Philips is joining convenience food and ready-made sandwich supplier Greencore as chief executive, where he will replace Patrick Coveney.
The Wicklow native joined DAA in 2017 following a retailing career spanning Walmart, Morrisons and Brown Thomas. He worked in the Republic, the United States, Canada and Britain.
Within a year of taking DAA’s helm he announced a €2 billion expansion plan for Dublin that included adding new aircraft stands and piers to both terminals.
He also oversaw construction of its third runway. Both projects were designed to allow Dublin handle up to 40 million passengers by the end of this decade.
In 2019 Cork and Dublin airports lured a record 35.5 million passengers between them, with the capital accounting for almost 33 million of that total.
Covid-19 wiped out 78 per cent of that the following year, when just 7.9 million people in total travelled through both.
DAA lost €284 million. The company cut 2,000 jobs from its 7,750 total in the Republic and overseas.
As the recovery accelerated this year, Dublin Airport came under fire for long security queues that some passengers said led to them missing flights.
Extra Garda background checks for airport workers were partly blamed for the problem as they slowed the hiring of new staff.
Mr Philips was the third external candidate appointed to lead DAA after his predecessor, Kevin Toland, who succeeded Mr Collier.
DAA pays chief executives €250,000 basic salary plus pension contributions. Its annual report for 2020 shows Mr Philips took a pay cut to €216,724 that year. His pension contribution was €149,546, in line with the previous year.