Miriam Lord: International Man of Travel Dalton Philips comes back down to earth with a bump

DAA head was grilled by Oireachtas committee over last weekend’s Dublin Airport fiasco

After nearly 3½ hours, or the time it takes to fly from Dublin to Rome or get through Dublin Airport without missing your flight, the chairman pronounced.

“I think it’s not harsh to say it was a cock-up on the rostering last week,” declared Kieran O’Donnell, stunning the room with his amazing powers of deduction.

This weekend, that 3½ hours should be enough; well, it might be enough for a short-haul passenger with checked-in luggage to sprint to their departure gate before it closes. No guarantees, though.

But at least the situation will be better than last week when departures went into meltdown and thousands of travellers ended up stranded and out of pocket after their planes left without them. Thankfully, the boss of airport operator DAA has “a high level of confidence” that this will not happen again, all going well and with the best will in the world. But don’t hold him to it.

Hauled before the Oireachtas transport committee on Wednesday to explain the fiasco at Dublin Airport on Sunday, Dalton Philips apologised profusely and abjectly for “falling extremely short of our desired standards”. His opening statement to the TDs and Senators was one of the best rehearsed and most confident grovels ever performed in Leinster House.

Yet while he unreservedly put the fault in Dalton, the CEO couldn’t quite promise that passengers will not end up waiting for hours again to shuffle from a pavement queue to inside the doors of the terminal building and through security.

But the man who runs the airport broke the good news that the anxious gateless hordes are to be temporarily corralled in special “passenger holding areas” which will be mostly under cover and furnished with outdoor toilets aspiring to be clean. With a bit of luck, a basic food and beverage might also be provided.

Having said sorry in many different ways, Philips sought to explain how the extreme waiting time fiasco came about. It was a serious side-effect of the pandemic, which plunged the aviation industry into crisis for almost two years and happened while the DAA was on a “pivot” from losing almost €1 million a week and dealing with 1,000 staff redundancies to manage “the resource gap”.

And to cut a long 3½-hour story short at the very beginning, 37 members of the security staff were unavailable last Sunday. Twenty of them didn’t turn up and the other 17 were trainees mistakenly rostered to work but not certified to do the job.

But the fact-finding exercise was useful for a number of reasons, the main one being that it gave a procession of TDs and Senators from the southern end of the country a chance to bang on about the great airports of Cork, Kerry and Shannon, which only get a look-in when dem above in Dublin are in a spot of bother.

James O’Connor, the Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East, was first to push away from the stand and ask the witness if the DAA has considered rerouting flights to Cork or Shannon when Dublin is unable to cope. Dalton Philips explained that the airlines make these decisions.

“We handle the infrastructure.”

Unfortunately, not always very well.

It didn’t matter how many times the CEO stressed that the DAA can’t make airlines land in particular destinations, the politicians kept plugging their local airports.

Fianna Fáil TD for Clare Cathal Crowe waxed dreamily about the advantages of Shannon, where people get through security in jig time. He even held up a photocopied picture of a big sign in departures which said “Queue here, please” with no queue under it.

But the meeting was about sorting out the problems at Dublin Airport. Kieran O’Donnell wanted to know what measures DAA is putting in place to prevent a repeat over the June bank holiday weekend.

“You’re live on RTÉ so tell the people now,” he said to Philips, who rejoices in the sort of espionage caper moniker which probably came with a qualifying “International Man of Travel” description until it was announced a few weeks ago that he is leaving to head up Greencore where he will be known as Dalton Philips: International Man of Ready-made Sandwiches.

Maybe he’ll be able to pull a few strings on the convenience food front for the passengers who will be penned in the outdoor holding areas for an unspecified period of time waiting to be “triaged”.

Labour TD for Fingal Duncan Smith wanted further detail on the holding areas. Dublin Airport is in his constituency, as is Malahide, which might explain why he described the planned temporary getaway ghetto as “a gazebo terminal”. Fine Gael TD for Kerry Brendan Griffin called the crowd-control arrangement “a cattle mart”.

“Our plan for next week is that people will not be outside for any length of time,” said the soon-to-be global sandwich king.

Kieran O’Donnell said he had been checking the weather forecast and it was looking like rain for much of the weekend. Would passengers be forced to queue in the rain?

“Potentially, chair.”

Senator Timmy Dooley, a former FF TD for Clare, boasted that passengers at Shannon Airport are not required to remove liquids from their bags at the security check. He wasn’t impressed by the CEO’s evidence, particularly at the big mistake in rostering 17 unsuitable trainees for security duty.

“We had a manual process failure,” explained the outgoing CEO. “What you call a hand-off failure. We cracked that anomaly.” This is the way people who earn around €366,000 a year talk.

Timmy wasn’t impressed and he was speaking as a man of experience. “When I worked and lived in the real world I travelled a lot,” he said mysteriously.

Micheal Lowry, the Independent TD for Tipperary, couldn’t understand why the DAA made 1,000 staff redundant – or “disemployed them”, as he put it – without realising they wouldn’t be able replace them quickly when business took off again.

“I would have thought your reputational profile was more important than your financial profile,” said the TD, whose part when a minister in the awarding of a mobile phone licence to businessman Denis O’Brien has gone down in the annals of Moriarty tribunal infamy.

The raciest evidence of the day in Committee Room number 2 came when Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan wanted to hear more about Dalton’s experience on Saturday night (the airport was packed with some people waiting over four hours) when he availed of the DAA’s Platinum Services private facility before flying to Saudi Arabia.

Apparently, he had to endure its advertised “VIP personalised treatment” for a whole hour and only then was he chauffeured to the steps of his airplane. The service costs €295 but he told Lynn “it’s a charge made to my cost centre. I don’t personally pay for it.” Furthermore, Dublin’s Platinum Services represent “incredible value” compared to the likes of Heathrow, he said.

He is the boss, so such perks are to be expected, but in the context of the shambles happening at the weekend, the image of Dalton Philips cruising past the exhausted and angry masses in his chauffeur-driven jalopy is most unfortunate, to put it mildly.

Particularly when the very valued and highly trained security staff his airport wants to urgently recruit can expect to earn a princely €14.14 an hour for their cost centre to do a “highly stressful job”.

When the book of this fiasco comes to be written, please let it be called J’a-queues.