Ireland could miss out on new flights and destinations if Dublin Airport passenger cap is not lifted, Varadkar warns

DAA to apply to increase Dublin Airport passenger cap of 32m people a year

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned that Irish passengers could miss out on direct flights to new destinations unless the cap on passenger numbers at Dublin Airport is lifted. The number is currently capped at 32 million a year and Mr Varadkar acknowledged that removing that limit would have to go through a planning process.

“Dublin Airport is the gateway to the country. We are an island. We can do so much by ship, but it’s the main way. Aviation is the way we get on and off the island both for trade and for personal travel and capping that I think, creates a difficulty,” he said.

“I don’t think it makes sense in terms of tourism, in terms of our economy, in terms of people-to-people contacts around the world at a time when we’re looking to create new, additional direct routes to Ireland for us to hold a cap like that.”

Aer Lingus said last month that it may look at increasing capacity at Manchester Airport because of passenger constraints in Dublin. Mr Varadkar said that illustrated the fact that it was a mistake to think that other Irish airports would benefit from limiting Dublin Airport’s growth.


“In an ideal world, what you would do is you would say, let’s cap at 32 billion in Dublin and use the capacity that exists in Cork and Shannon, for example, and Knock. In the real world, where airlines decide where they want to fly, the risk is we lose routes,” he said.

“I know the reality of it from my time as transport minister that airlines will fly where they want to. And it’s not the case that you can tell somebody who might be thinking of starting a direct flight from Ireland to India or Ireland to Brazil to go to a different airport instead. They won’t, they’ll go to a different country instead. So there’s a real risk that if we cap flights at Dublin Airport at 32 million, we’ll lose routes or we won’t get new routes that we would otherwise have got.”

DAA is to lodge a planning application within weeks seeking to increase the passenger cap at Dublin Airport, its chief executive has said.

Kenny Jacobs told Newstalks’s Anton Savage Show that the restricted capacity was likely in the short-term as the airport is allowed a maximum of 32 million passengers annually, “which we will be close to this year”.

The State company reported more than 25 million passengers at Dublin in the first nine months of this year, with the numbers travelling returning to levels not seen since before the coronavirus shutdown. This has raised the prospect of the cap being breached by year end.

“We are looking to potentially a couple of years where we will have restricted capacity growth,” Mr Jacobs said, adding that this was not new news and he would share frustrations expressed about the issue by Aer Lingus chief executive Lynne Embleton.

The restriction dates back to 2008, when planners approved the airport’s second terminal, and is based on surface access or the number of vehicles allowed to come in and out of Dublin Airport.

“It’s a planning restriction ... we’ve been trying to change it since 2008, but a few things have got in the way. It was delayed with the 2008 financial crisis, then you had the Covid pandemic,” he said.

“We are getting a new planning application into Fingal County Council in a number of weeks. Once that gets approved that will allow us to grow beyond 40 million in the coming decade and beyond.”

Mr Jacobs said Dublin Airport, in order to keep pace with population changes, would need to be able to have 36 million or 37 million passengers a year by 2030.

“I think we will have two years where it will be difficult for everybody who wants to come to Dublin Airport – I’m talking about airlines – being able to do it,” he said. “If I’d a magic wand I would say if we got planning permission on the 1st of January everything would be great. I think it’s likely to take two years.”

He added: “The risk to Ireland with this is the airlines just won’t say, ‘okay that suits us, we’ll wait’, they will take capacity elsewhere. Elsewhere won’t be to other Irish airports in reality, it’ll be places like Manchester and Edinburgh. That means will be losing jobs.”

Ms Embleton last week described as “completely unacceptable” that Dublin Airport was asking the company to consider reducing the number of “ad hoc” flights it operates into and out of the airport next year so it can comply with its passenger cap.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times