Miriam Lord: The airport crisis that fell out of the sky

Dublin Airport was a shambles back in March, too, but we were told things had much improved

FYI, Dublin Airport Authority.

Her name is Hildegarde.

Not Disregarde, although why not if you can get away with it?

Hildegarde Naughton is the Minister of State at the Department of Transport with special responsibility for international and road transport and logistics. She has been mentioned in Dáil dispatches as the Government’s official whip-cracker in its dealings with DAA over unacceptable conditions at Dublin Airport.

In recent months Disregarde Naughton has been out at Dublin Airport more times than the globe-trotting members of Oireachtas parliamentary friendship groups. Either that, or the aviation big wigs are being hauled in on a regular basis from their cosy cockpits in the north county to her office in Dublin 2.

How could things have become so chaotic at the airport last weekend with thousands of people missing their flights, the queue for departures stretching as far as the eye could see and vast drifts of unclaimed luggage accumulating in Arrivals?

But the place was a shambles back in March, too, when questions were asked in the Dáil. Cian O’Callaghan of the Social Democrats asked the Taoiseach to throw some light on the matter, and on April 6th, and Micheál Martin was able to reassure the travelling public that “the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, has been holding daily briefings with the CEO, Mr Dalton Philips, and other senior DAA staff. The immediate situation has improved and recruitment efforts are being redoubled.”

On their case. No let-up. Every day.

As a result, the situation improved so much that Fianna Fáil TD Cormac Devlin was able to stand up in the Dáil just last week and tell the Minister for Housing (filling in for the Taoiseach) that constituents were contacting him about delays at Dublin Airport and passengers missing flights.

“We were promised by the DAA that 300 new staff would be employed by the end of June,” said Cormac. Has there been any update on this?

“I am very familiar with Dublin Airport, it being in my own constituency,” replied Darragh O’ Brien, who is also very familiar with the side on which his bread is buttered.

“I know many of the people who work there directly and they do a very good job, there is no question of that.”

He said Disregarde “has been in regular contact with the DAA and is driving them forward on their recruitment campaign for new staff to increase capacity”.

We all know what happened a few days later. Sunday’s events had an inevitable sequel in the Dáil on Tuesday.

Mary Lou McDonald relived the nightmare for Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath, Micheál Martin’s latest stand-in. The Sinn Féin leader demanded to know what the Government was going to do to make sure the “shambles” and “fiasco” and “chaos” and “mess” did not happen again this bank holiday weekend.

What happened last week wasn’t out of the blue, she pointed out. (Her own TDs are among those who have been complaining for the past year about the situation at the airport.)

Laying off 1,000 people during the pandemic and a subsequent “lack of workforce planning” by DAA lies at the heart of the problem.

Michael McGrath was disgusted with the carry-on at the weekend. “The scenes were completely unacceptable,” he fulminated in a thunderous monotone. It was dreadful for those people stuck in queues and missing flights.

“I can only imagine their anxiety and stress,” Micheal quivered, with a distressing twitch of an eyebrow. “It cannot be allowed to happen again,” he said in a way that suggested he was utterly raging inside.

These issues began to emerge in March, he explained.

Funny that.

Here’s Paul Murphy of Solidarity-People Before Profit from last October: “I have raised the situation at the DAA multiple times in the Dáil. The so-called new ways of working it has introduced are about outsourcing, changing rotas and undermining basic conditions and demarcation. It has been a complete disaster.

“Staff tell me that outsourcing is the reason there were massive queues in Dublin Airport a few weeks ago. I have just been sent a video of the toilets in the airport, which are in a disgraceful condition.”

Exactly like last Sunday, more than six months later.

But better late than never. According to McGrath, when these issues began to emerge in March, “there was significant and continuing intervention” with the DAA and Disregarde Naughton.

She had very regular meetings — “every second day, in fact” — to ensure the issue was properly addressed. “To be fair, for the great bulk of that period, the issues were addressed and the types of scenes we witnessed at the weekend were not evident.”

Only a minor shambles as opposed to a complete fiasco for two whole months.

Labour’s Ivana Bacik agreed the airport chaos was not surprising. Echoing the words of Paul Murphy in October, she said serious issues with the working conditions and pay rates of staff employed by the DAA were a huge factor in what happened at the weekend.

Meanwhile, McGrath was happy to parrot the latest company line about the pay and conditions available to workers.

According to Richard Boyd Barrett in March, the DAA was “offering jobs where applicants have to be available for 40 hours a week but are only guaranteed 20 hours, coming out with €283. That’s an absolute insult.”

The latest promise, according to Micheal McGrath, is 30 hours.

All the talk about recruitment drives — he said repeatedly that DAA has had 5,000 job applications since March — doesn’t factor in retention rates. Employing people is one thing, holding on to them is “a serious issue”, the Labour leader said, urging McGrath to support her party’s Bill to introduce a living, rather than minimum, wage.

The crisis at Dublin Airport is directly linked to the cost-of-living crisis, Boyd Barrett said. DAA executives “on total packages of €366,000″ are hiring security staff to work “on rubbishy flexible contracts for €14 an hour” where they don’t know what hours or weekly income they will be given.

This is “a tale of two crises” where “ordinary workers are being hammered” and “the billionaires and the billionaires and the CEOs of the DAA” are doing very well for themselves. Where are the breaks for workers on low and middle incomes, for pensioners and students, wondered Boyd Barrett?

But the Government has already put €2.4 billion worth of support measures in place to help people, pointed out the Minister, which is not “a drop in the ocean”. This is “taxpayers’ money”, and spending such a huge amount of it is not a decision to be taken lightly.

So why not tax the energy companies making fortunes during this crisis to augment that hard-earned taxpayers’ money?

“Even Boris Johnson, the Tory, can introduce a windfall tax on their profits,” cried RBB, shuddering at the mere mention of the name. “The Government can’t even do what Boris Johnson is doing, and by God, he’s no left-winger.”

Johnson introduced his windfall tax only to deflect from his own difficulties, but no matter.

McGrath wittered on about unprecedented economic circumstances, record inflation, stakeholders and the upcoming National Economic Dialogue.

But he never mentioned any windfall tax.

Put to shame by Boris Johnson — that’s some achievement for the Government.