Dublin Airport’s Dalton Philips: ‘You really can’t communicate too much in a crisis’

Dalton Philips chief executive of Dublin Airport Authority.Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

When Dublin Airport boss Dalton Philips is asked about the hardest points of the Covid era, his initial answer is one that would resonate with aviation aficionados, but maybe not too many other people. “The quietness, the stillness of it,” he says quietly, as we sit in his office overlooking an airfield strewn with aircraft that remain motionless for more than an hour and a half.

In normal times, nothing thrums quite like an airport, a wonderful medley of excitement, anticipation and adventure. Since Covid hit last March, Dublin Airport’s roar has become a whisper. Fewer than 7.5 million passengers passed through its doors in 2020, less than a quarter of the record 32.9 million in 2019.

This year’s numbers could be lower still. While the international narrative is of vaccine passports and summer fun, Dublin’s mandatory hotel quarantine weighs on airlines planning summer schedules. Outbound passengers are deterred by the government’s “do not travel” advice enforced by police checks on the way into the terminals.

It has been quite the entry into the perilous world of aviation commerce for Philips, a long time retail executive whose work took him through Canada, the US and the UK (where he headed supermarket group Wm Morrison until 2015) before he joined the Dublin Airport Authority, now renamed as the DAA, as chief executive in October 2017.

The eerie quiet of the airport – which Philips describes as “too depressing not just for your passengers but for the staff who are working there” - was at least something he could fix (by piping Irish pop music through the halls, cultivated on Spotify’s Soundtrack Your Brand).

A view of Dublin Aiport. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Dublin Aiport during lockdown. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Weathering the storm

The pandemic that all but shuttered his airport was another matter. “Time and time again you’ve realised that so many things are just way out of your control,” he says of the experience of leading a business, and parenting three teenagers, through the pandemic.

One thing he could control was the airport’s buffers to weather the storm. To bolster those, he raised almost €1billion in liquidity when Covid first emerged last year. In a podcast a few months ago, Philips said the airport “would have gone bust” had it not been for those financial manoeuvres.

The DAA – which Philips runs and includes Dublin and Cork airports, and international operations across 16 countries – is entirely State-owned, by a country that can sell a 20-year bond at a yield of less than 0.5 per cent. Going bust seems unlikely.

“Somebody then steps in,” Philips says conceding that “when you have one airport that is responsible for 96 per cent of a country’s traffic, it’s not going to disappear”. Still, he says the State backstop gave him “zero comfort” in a year when the DAA laid off 2,000 of its 7,750 staff in Ireland and overseas and returned a loss of €280m. “If you had that [BAILOUT]mentality, it’s all over,” he says. “We have to carry our own water.”

Bolstering the DAA’s liquidity was one of Philips’s two big priorities when Covid hit, along with staff health and morale. He addressed the latter partly through becoming the airport authority’s “chief communicator”, with missives to staff seven days a week on how the group was doing, coupled with videos including “really candid information” on the organisation’s finances and many many conference calls.

His personal belief in a “separation between work and home” has held him back from doing town halls from his kitchen, but he says it’s a “fair challenge” on the basis that staff might feel more comfortable with their chaos if they saw his.

He does already share more, albeit not visually. “You definitely show vulnerability, you talk about your own situation in a way you never would have before” – he says, citing home schooling as one example, along with regular conversations about mental health at all levels of the organisation.

“You really can’t communicate too much in a crisis,” he says of the lessons he has learned over Covid. “Tell people exactly where you are, what’s happening, what’s ahead, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it - listen, explain, answer questions. Liquidity is critical to carry a company through the storm - but safety, support and strong communications are ultimately what carry people through.”

Layoffs

Not all of the people came through the pandemic with their jobs. Philips never experienced the brutal fallout from the financial crisis because he was working as chief operating officer for grocery chain Loblaws in Canada, a country that avoided the worst of the crash. His time at Morrisons included 20,000 job cuts but “we laid them off into a vibrant market”.

“Here [IN DUBLIN]we’re laying people off into a very difficult environment, people who have had long tenure in the airport and are going to have to reskill themselves,” he says. “Of course”, that’s different, he says, “for all the obvious reasons”.

The remaining staff have to deal with what Philips calls “the demonisation” of airport workers, as travel is painted as the root of Ireland’s Covid woes. “People used to be so proud of working in aviation, you walk around like a Stormtrooper,” he says. “Now, people are like, yeah, I’m working in Swords [the area where the airport is].”

While Philips says he has never come to the airport and been tempted to just get on a flight and escape locked-down Ireland, conversations around those job losses and work practice reforms have generated difficult moments.

“You fight really hard to keep people in employment, two-thirds kept their jobs,” he says, describing how the airport protected jobs by aggressive cost cuts and changes to work practices, as well as offering career breaks. “You might have a friction point with some of the union partners and it might be on something relatively small and you go . . . ah guys, we just saved two-thirds of the jobs.”

The DAA’s Dublin and Cork airport workforces are highly unionised. Philips acknowledges that the pandemic has helped get through work practice changes that would have taken a lot longer in more normal times, particularly in the area of new technology. The airport will emerge with “much more efficient and robust operating practices”, he adds.

Ireland’s public policy around the pandemic is another thing that has been preoccupying Philips.

Mandatory hotel quarantine – where arrivals from a changing list of countries are put in quarantine for 10-14 days – is the latest challenge. Philips says that while the policy has not had a significant impact on daily numbers through Dublin Airport so far, it sends a message that Ireland is “closed for access” and he is “massively concerned” that airlines planning their summer schedules will look to other countries.

“We fought so hard . . . getting in the traffic light system [for EU countries people could travel freely to] and then it was disbanded almost immediately. Why?” he says.

Having put so much store on communicating in the crisis, his protests about the impact of mandatory hotel quarantine are falling on deaf ears and it clearly smarts. “There’s no debate about the impact of what we’re doing as a nation in terms of cutting Ireland’s connectivity,” he says. “We’ve always been [BIG]on the primacy of health, but there should be a debate [about these measures].”

Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport., Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Three questions for Dalton Philips

If you were not a CEO, what would you be?

I got my pilot’s licence when I was 22 – and if I had not been in this commercial world, I would have probably become a commercial pilot.

Who is your leadership hero?

Sam Walton of Walmart. I spent seven years working for Walmart. Walton was an outstanding leader and I learned so much from the culture he left behind (sadly I never met him). Two big lessons: remain really close to the front-line operation, and all members of staff are equally important, regardless of role.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

[Early in his career, Philips cut someone’s hours in half because he had to reduce his wages bill]. I was talking to him some months later, he said he had to drop out of university, ‘because you cut my wages, I couldn’t afford to be at university’ [HE TOLD ME]. I was 23 or 24, I never forgot that lesson, the impact, whether it’s 1 or 100 or 1,000 [JOBS]. There was that guy that had a road ahead of him. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

Business Today

Get the latest business news and commentarySIGN UP HERE