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Dublin Airport delays due to ‘perfect storm’ of factors, sources say

Shortage of personnel to train new staff means filling posts quickly appears impossible

Significant delays and related problems are likely continue at Dublin Airport through the summer months, sources believe, because airport operator DAA has been “hit by a perfect storm”.

While a major effort is under way to fill hundreds of vacant security officer posts, they say a shortage of personnel to train the new staff means filling the posts quickly appeared impossible.

“You had a situation where over 1,000 passengers missed flights in one day over the weekend; there are big crowds and people are getting tetchy, angry,” said one source.

“And if staff are under pressure the whole time, they are going to miss things when checking baggage, it’s human nature. So from both those points of view, the security situation is not great at all.”

One source explained that in 2019 there were about 900 airport security officers, compared with about 600 at present. And while the unit responsible for training those officers had eight personnel in 2019, it has just three now, with the number of trainers having fallen from five to one at present.

Security sources said DAA was approached repeatedly last year by a company that runs some of its recruitment inquiring whether it wanted to resume recruiting security officers in preparation for the anticipated surge in passenger numbers post the Covid-19 pandemic. However, DAA did not decide until last December to begin recruiting, by which point it needed 200 personnel immediately.

“Trying to hire that number of staff was a big ask, especially when hundreds of experienced security people had left when the pandemic started,” said one person familiar with the situation.

Furthermore, Dublin Airport failed recent European Union security audits, meaning staff are now obliged to carry out additional swabs for explosives on passenger luggage to satisfy the bloc’s safety requirements, which adds to the delays and pressure on staff.

The audit, overseen by the European Aviation Safety Authority, involved audit officials trying to covertly smuggle prohibited items – usually firearms, knives, improvised explosive devices or components for the devices – on to aircraft in baggage. The exercises are designed to test the effectiveness of an airport’s security screening.

At Dublin Airport, 10 smuggling efforts were made and seven were not detected, all of which involved improvised explosive devices. This means extra swabs for explosives must now be taken at the airport. This adds a time-consuming and labour-intensive element to the job at a time when staff shortages are already acute.

The Irish Times understands members of the airport police have been deployed on piers in the airport to help swab baggage, thus pulling them away from providing other forms of security on the 2,500-acre airport campus at a time when large crowds have been forming due to the delays and creating a policing requirement.

One source familiar with airport security said shortcomings with the technology in use at the airport was also contributing to the delays as the same kind of investments had not been made in Dublin as at Shannon Airport.

While three-dimensional scanners are available for scanning baggage, the scanners in use in Dublin are 2D. This means bags must be unpacked – laptops taken out of bags, for example – adding to queuing times.

Last November, 3D scanning technology was rolled out at Shannon Airport, which halved the time passengers must dwell in the security scanning area. The technology also means liquids no longer have to be separated out and checked, thus saving further time.

In reply to queries, DAA said it had recruited over 300 new airport security officers since last October and these would become operational in the weeks ahead. It added another 70 would be hired, which would eventually bring the total to 970 officers, which would be higher than the 900 in place in 2019, which was a record at that point.

“These 300 new ASUs have either started working with us already or have a confirmed start date for the weeks ahead,” DAA said.

“It is absolutely critical to our operation that our security screening processes run as seamlessly and efficiently as possible into the future,” it said in a statement.

“We intend to continue to recruit at this accelerated pace for as long as there is a requirement for us to do so. Since the start of March, more than 5,000 people have applied for our ASU roles.”

The authority declined to comment on questions about the results of the EU audit or about the need for new explosives swabbing at the airport, due to the sensitive nature of security in the aviation sector. However, it said it was “fully committed to safeguarding civil aviation and protecting” passengers.

On the issue of more advanced scanners, it said it was “working towards upgrading the technology within our security process” that would allow it remove rules around prohibiting most bottles of liquid, and the associated checks. The first phase of that process would be completed next year.