Irish airports suffered some of Europe’s heaviest falls in passenger numbers last year in the face of Government travel bans, new figures show.
The State outlawed “non-essential” travel and imposed curbs on incoming passengers, including forced hotel quarantines that hit multinational workers.
Irish airports lost 74.4 per cent – three out of every four passengers – in 2021 versus 2019 as a consequence, according to figures released by Airports Council International (ACI) on Tuesday.
The council says the Republic was one of Europe's hardest hit nations, along with Finland (which saw an 80 per cent decline), the UK (where numbers tumbled 78per cent) and the Czech Republic (which was down 75 per cent).
This was “mainly a reflection of severe restrictions on travel imposed by these countries”, said ACI.
Greece was Europe's best performer, suffering just a 47 per cent loss, Romania was next, down 53 per cent. Spain and Portugal, popular with Irish sunseekers, were down 56.4 per cent and 58 per cent respectively.
ACI calculates that Europe’s airports lost 1.4 billion passengers last year, almost two-thirds of the 2019 total. However, the performance was better than the 1.9 billion travellers lost in 2020, the year that Covid-19 struck.
Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe, said governments' knee-jerk reactions to the emergence of Covid's Omicron strain late in 2021 stalled a recovery that had begun last summer.
"Yet, these travel restrictions did nothing to stop the spread of Omicron, as recognised just last week by the World Health Organisation and also evidenced by a recent Oxera & Edge Health report looking at the situation in the UK," he said.
From early December the Irish Government demanded that incoming travellers show negative Covid test results along with vaccination certificates, sparking initial confusion among airlines and passengers. ACI noted that new restrictions introduced by governments ignored European Centre for Disease Control advice.
The Republic recently dropped its extra testing demands.
Meanwhile, ACI, whose members include Cork and Dublin Airports, has joined with other groups to call on EU member states to end conflicting rules, which have left bookings trailing last year’s levels.
Once Omicron emerged, governments such as France, Italy, Denmark and Malta shortened vaccination certificates' validity. Others sought additional negative test results from incoming travellers.
ACI and other bodies, including Airlines for Europe, backed by Ryanair and Aer Lingus owner IAG, said on Tuesday that they supported the EU Commission's call for harmonised validity for digital Covid certificates.
The travel and tourism bodies argue that individual EU states continue to act unilaterally, two years after the pandemic began. “This inconsistency in restrictions across the EU directly affects the ability of individual passengers and businesses to plan and schedule future trips and holiday bookings,” they said on Tuesday.
“As a result, the transport and tourism industry still faces booking rates at least 30 per cent below 2021 levels.”
The groups added that governments needed to co-ordinate to restore travellers’ confidence. “Otherwise, the crucial summer season and Europe’s economic recovery could be put in jeopardy,” they said.
Other signatories included the European Tourism Association, European Travel Agents' and Tour Operators' Associations and the European Regions Airline Association.