Bank holiday travellers face one-hour queue to get through security - DAA

DAA chief accepts airport ‘failed in its duty’ to passengers last weekend

Travellers could wait up to an hour to get through Dublin Airport over the bank holiday weekend, airport boss Dalton Philips told an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday.

“At peak times it could be up to an hour,” said Mr Philips, chief executive of DAA, which runs the airport, who added that that timing depended on people not turning up more than 2½ hours ahead of short-haul flights and 3½ hours before long-haul take-off times. Up to another hour is being advised if passengers have bags to drop or check in.

“That’s not where we want to be,” Mr Philips told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport. “We are in a very difficult situation, we’re dealing with fine margins.”

Among measures to address the ongoing crisis, passengers arriving too early for flights at Dublin Airport will be “triaged” and asked to wait in a holding area as part of an effort to control queuing, the committee was told.

However, Mr Philips said the airport did not expect to use passenger holding areas outside its terminals this weekend. “We don’t anticipate it, but we have to be prepared for it,” he said.

He earlier apologised to the thousands of passengers left queuing for hours last weekend, with more than 1,400 missing their flights, acknowledging the airport “failed in our duty” to passengers.

He assured passengers hit by last weekend’s delays that they will not be “out of pocket”. He said they could email Dublin Airport or check its website to seek compensation. Dublin Airport will compensate passengers for accommodation at their destination “if they do not have insurance and it’s our fault”, Mr Philips said.

Mr Philips blamed an unexpected surge in air travellers and recruitment problems for the delays that caused 1,000 passengers to miss flights. He said the DAA was making significant progress in hiring new staff but cautioned that they could not be “onboarded” quickly.

He said the airport handled a similar number of people last Friday as on Sunday without incident.

The transport committee heard that an “anomaly” led to 17 new recruits being rostered on security detail last Sunday before they were certified, causing travel chaos at Dublin Airport.

He said the airport would have 40 extra security officers working over the bank holiday weekend, and hopes to bring 167 new security officers on board by the end of June, bringing the total number to 702. That number will rise further, to 800, over the summer.

“We are 60 security officers behind where we need to be; you are operating on very fine margins,” Mr Philips said.

He said Dublin Airport is considering asking staff from airports in Britain other EU countries to aid it in dealing with the squeeze. However, he cautioned that it they would still have to get clearance to work here, but said this can be done quickly.

The main problem is a shortage of security staff qualified to operate X-ray machines. Dublin will bring three to six officers certified to do this from Cork this weekend.

He told the committee the airport was down 37 officers last Sunday from a rostered complement of 250 staff and 24 supervisors, which would have been enough to handle 50,000 passengers. Of the missing staff, 17 of these were “new recruits which our rostering system had anticipated would have completed training to allow them to work last Sunday, but they had not yet been certified”.

While the anomaly has now been resolved, Mr Philips said, that shortage of staff compounded a loss of 20 officers who were absent from work that day.

Queues caused more than 1,000 people to miss flights from Dublin on Sunday, sparking outrage among passengers.

Many of the missing staff have particular clearances required to operate security lanes and cannot be readily substituted, Mr Philips told the committee. “We were unable to bring in substitute staff at short notice in the early hours of Sunday morning. This compounded the queuing problem throughout much of Sunday,” he said.

This meant the airport could not open six security lanes, three in each terminal, with the result that the airport could process 1,200 fewer passengers per hour than anticipated.

“As more and more passengers joined the growing queues for the available security lanes, the situation became compounded, leading to a decision at 10.30am to advise those passengers queuing outside the terminal with flights departing before noon that they would not make their flights,” he told the committee.

Addressing the issue of the €97 million the DAA received from Government last year, he said it was specifically “to incentivise airlines to operate schedules this summer”.

Responding to Fianna Fáil’s James O’Connor, he said the DAA cut staff by 25 per cent.

“We felt that going into 2022 with 70 per cent of our staff that we would be okay,” Mr Philips said. “We would have explained that there was a risk when you downsize. We took all the industry analysts’ data and we worked through that to try predict what the traffic levels would be.

“We were widely wrong. From March it took off at a level we never expected.” But, he said, events during January and February — the surge in infection with the Omicron strain of Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — actually hit passenger numbers and were “very concerning”.

Airport finance chief Catherine Gubbins told the committee the Government had paid the DAA about €4 million a month in Covid-19 wage supports.

She said that, at the end of 2019, the State company had a wage bill of €20 million a month. Government aid and pay cuts saved up to €9 million a month. Without those actions, Ms Gubbins said, DAA would have lost €1 million a day during the pandemic.

The deployment of the army to help prevent a repeat of the chaos that occurred at the airport last Sunday has been firmly rejected as an option by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney. Sinn Féin had called on the Defence Forces to be brought in to help alleviate the queues and delay, especially in relation to security checks.

Asked on Wednesday about this possibility, Mr Coveney strongly ruled it out. “I don’t think it’s the role of the Defence Forces to run an airport. The DAA has significant resources available to it. It should be able to respond with a professional management response to the mistakes and learning of last weekend, and we expect them to do that,” he said.

However, Mr Coveney warned that if this happened again it would have a detrimental effect on Ireland’s reputation internationally. “If this were to happen again, repeatedly, that would have, I think, a significant impact on our international reputation.”

Documents given to the Oireachtas transport committee also show that additional security staff have been “secured” from Cork Airport, and that increased resourcing levels will “drive a 10 per cent increase in total security lane capacity”.

A strong Garda presence is planned during peak periods. The same documents show that peaks are expected on each day from Thursday to Monday in the morning, when “first waves” will see between 15,000 and 16,000 passengers arriving, followed by another three smaller waves of decreasing intensity, each consisting of between 8,000 and 14,000 passengers. Lane capacity will be increased versus last week by between zero and 50 per cent.

Access to terminals will be controlled and will require documentation indicating the time of flight such as booking confirmation or a boarding card, and DAA will put in place bad weather cover, seating and toilets in the holding area “as quickly as possible”.

Mr Philips defended DAA’s recruitment strategy, saying that it began hiring at “significant levels” in the second half of 2021 once the outlook for the industry began to improve off the back of increased vaccination and a “lowering of infection”.

New EU background checks meant “we faced huge challenges” in bringing new people on board — meaning the airport lost 40 per cent of the new security staff it had recruited, and the remainder had to wait an additional seven weeks before they could start working.

“This created a big resourcing gap that we have been working to address ever since,” he said, adding that Covid-related absenteeism at the start of the year meant 25 per cent of all security staff were absent at that time.

Non-security staff are working shifts in that section and overtime and incentives have been made available, and while Mr Philips pointed to progress, he said: “The fact remains that we have been — and are still — managing a resource gap as we pivot from losses of €1 million per day and 1,000 redundancies during Covid to a dramatic recovery of air travel, faster and earlier than anyone predicted.

“I appreciate the anger, frustration and upset that this has caused,” he told the committee, adding: “I also recognise the reputational damage to our country for which connectivity and ease of access is our lifeblood.”

Mr Philips, who is due to leave the DAA and join sandwich maker Greencore later this year, told the committee that passengers can be assured they will not be left out of pocket. “These challenges were not of passengers’ making in any way, and we will work closely with everyone impacted to make sure that they are not impacted financially.”

He also thanked DAA’s employees “and their commitment and their efforts which have been outstanding, particularly over recent weeks and months”.

Barry O'Halloran

Barry O'Halloran

Barry O’Halloran covers energy, construction, insolvency, and gaming and betting, among other areas

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times