Dublin Airport’s managing director, Vincent Harrison, talks to Joe Bates about a record breaking 2019, a long-awaited new runway, his gateway’s 80th birthday and returning to full operations after COVID-19.
Aviation, the global economy and life maybe very much on hold for now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is no doubting that when it is finally over, Dublin Airport (DUB), will be hoping to bounce back as soon as possible after one of the most successful years in its history.
Indeed, a record 32.9 passengers (+4%) passed through Ireland’s gateway to the world last year and work started on its new North Runway, which operator, daa, has described as “the most important thing Ireland will build in a generation”.
In the last 18 months, the airport has also opened a new transfer facility, transformed its retail/F&B offerings to provide passengers with more choice and a better sense of place of Ireland than ever before, and picked up an customer excellence award for being the joint best airport in Europe handling 25-40mppa in ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) awards.
Oh, and earlier this year it celebrated its 80th birthday, which it intends to mark throughout 2020, albeit in a more muted way given the impact of COVID-19.
Record breaking year
The airport attributes its all-time traffic high of last year down to a combination of 25 new routes and services that included new long-haul routes to Calgary, Dallas/Fort Worth and Minneapolis-St Paul and new short-haul services to Bodrum, Kiev, Lourdes and Thessaloniki, plus capacity increases on 28 existing routes as airlines added flights to their schedules or operated services with larger aircraft.
The extra services meant that an additional 1.4 million passengers travelled through DUB last year, including 2.2 million transfer passengers, who helped cement the airport’s status as the fifth largest airport in Europe for transatlantic connectivity.
“The connectivity provided by Dublin Airport is essential, as the Irish economy is one of the most open in the world,” states DUB’s managing director, Vincent Harrison.
“Our economy depends on trade, exports, inbound tourism and foreign direct investment, and as a vital element of Irish national infrastructure, Dublin Airport will play a key role in helping the Irish economy to begin to chart a recovery after the current health crisis
Last year Dublin benefitted from a significant growth in transfer passengers. In fact, the number of passengers using the airport as a hub has more than quadrupled since 2013, the more recent arrivals benefitting from the 2018 opening of a dedicated transfer facility.
The top five transfer routes handled at DUB in 2019 were Boston–Manchester; Chicago–Manchester; Boston–Edinburgh; Chicago–Rome; and Boston-Amsterdam.
Harrison is, however, under no illusion that things will be very different this year for DUB and almost every other airport on the planet in terms of traffic trends.
He says: “We started 2020 with an optimistic outlook as we were expecting to welcome 12 new routes, however, the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry globally has been catastrophic and that is now our biggest challenge.”
For the record, the top five airlines and routes at DUB in 2019 were Ryanair, Aer Lingus, British Airways, Lufthansa and Emirates and London, Amsterdam, Manchester, New York and Paris.
The airport’s new 3.1 kilometre long North Runway, a key recommendation of the Irish government’s National Aviation Policy, is scheduled to open in 2021, and Harrison believes that it will make a huge difference to DUB’s operationally efficiency and ability to grow in the future.
“The nature of the business is that while many airlines plan for the short-term – in some cases looking at the next three, six or nine months – and possibly being driven by short-term stock market performance considerations, airports need to plan for the longer-term,” notes Harrison.
“We have to look decades ahead as planning and developing large airport assets takes a long time and, are typically, once in a generation build.
“The North Runway, which has been planned since the 1960s, is an essential development for the Irish economy and will help underpin additional tourism, trade and foreign direct investment for decades to come.
“Given the very significant economic impact of COVID-19, the North Runway will be a key factor in helping the Irish economy to recover. It is urgently needed to allow for expansion to underpin Ireland’s long-term economic growth.”
In a nutshell, it will ensure that DUB is able to expand its route network, particularly between Europe and North America, and also potentially open up new direct markets to countries in Asia and Latin-America.
Located almost 1.7 kilometres north of Dublin Airport’s current main runway, the new runway – Ireland’s Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, is pictured above right at its official sod turning ceremony last year with daa chief executive, Dalton Philips (centre), and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross (right) – will also support the creation of 31,200 new jobs and €2.2 billion in additional economic activity by 2043.
The North Runway project also involves the construction of six kilometres of new internal airport roads, and two new electricity substations. New drainage and pollution controls will be installed, as well as about 8km of electrical cable, 11km of CCTV cable and more than 2,100 new energy efficient runway and taxiway lights.
Dublin Airport turned 80 years old on January 19, making it one of Europe’s oldest airports still operating on the same site.
Statistics reveal that more than 580 million passengers have passed through DUB in the intervening years since its first commercial flight, an Aer Lingus Lockheed 14 aircraft, departed for Liverpool’s Speke Airport at 9am on Friday, January 19, 1940.
The flight was the only one handled at the airport on that historic day, unlike in 2019, when Dublin Airport routinely handled hundreds of daily flights and over 233,000 aircraft movements during the year.
“From one twice-weekly flight to one destination to 700 flights daily, with direct services to more than 190 destinations in 42 countries, Dublin Airport has grown to become a thriving hub of activity, and will be again when the COVID-19 crisis is over,” says Harrison.
Being a good neighbour
Sustainable growth has always been a priority of daa – it also owns and manages Cork Airport – and Harrison assures me that this will always be the case at DUB, revealing that it has set a number of ‘green’ targets to meet by the end of 2020.
These include achieving carbon neutral status in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation scheme; reducing water usage by 10% through the implementation of water saving technologies; and transitioning to a low emission vehicle fleet wherever possible, and as quickly as possible, and encouraging other DUB operators to do the same.
He does, however, feel that aviation in general receives some unfair attention for its perceived detrimental impact on the environment, especially as the IT sector is also responsible for producing the same amount of the world’s man-made CO2 emissions as aviation – around 2% – and the clothing industry considerably more.
“The issue that needs to be addressed is carbon generation rather than flying per se,” Harrison suggests. “Aerospace manufacturers are currently spending over $15 billion annually on developing more fuel-efficient aircraft.
“Aircraft have already dramatically improved their emissions. A flight taken today produces around half the CO2 that the same flight would have in 1990, and this will be further reduced going forward. Indeed, by 2050, net aviation carbon emissions will be half of what they were in 2005.”
Customer service success
Despite Ireland’s reputation for being a warm and friendly place to visit, prior to the 2010 opening of Terminal 2, Dublin Airport always struggled to do well in ACI’s ASQ customer excellence programme, and actually finished third from last out of 27 peer airports in its category in 2009, largely due to its cramped infrastructure.
It has been a different story since though, with improvements each year culminating in it winning its first-ever ASQ award last year, for its performance in 2018.
Harrison points out that over the last decade, in addition to adding new facilities, DUB has invested “a huge amount of time and effort” on improving its scores year-on-year, moving to the top five for a number of years and ultimately to the number one spot.
“Maintaining a leading position as the business grows is an ongoing challenge as more and more passengers are using our facility,” he admits.
“We continue to survey passengers and focus on key areas that need attention. Understandably, our newer assets such as T2 and its pier, scores better than old assets such as Terminal 1. In the past number of years, we have invested significantly in upgrading T1 and improving facilities and services there for our customers.”
Brexit and recovering from COVID-19
Not so long ago, it seemed like Brexit was the No.1 talking point at aviation conferences, and debates aplenty discussed the wisdom of the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the implications of its actions for airports across the world. This is obviously no longer the case, but when the coronavirus crisis is over and the aviation industry is effectively up and running again, it will be interesting to see if it has any impact at all on travel between the UK and Ireland.
Harrison doesn’t believe that Brexit will significantly affect traffic numbers, which is just as well as on average 10 million passenger per annum fly between Dublin and 24 destinations in the UK.
“It is a very important market for us,” says Harrison. “Our countries have strong ties, and this is reflected by the fact that it will be easier to travel between the UK and Ireland than between Great Britain and other EU member states after the transition period has ended, and this will help.”
With regard to COVID-19, Harrison says: “The priority now is to prudently manage our way through the current COVID-19 crisis and continue to keep the airport open for essential cargo and repatriation flights in line with Irish government policy.
“We’re also hugely focused on our staff during this difficult time. Since the start of the crisis, we have been providing daily updates that include company information, health advice, wellness updates and a wider picture of what is happening in our sector. The health and security of our employees and other airport users is always our key priority, so that’s been a key focus throughout.
“And of course, we’re focusing on how we, our customers and our stakeholders can be best positioned for a return to business. As yet, it’s impossible to accurately predict how this global crisis will play out, but it’s unlikely that the new normal will be the same as the old normal.
“Growing connectivity for Ireland has always been a priority for us and particularly to new markets and destinations not already served. Our colleagues in our airline business development area are constantly in touch with the airline customers, and that is continuing.
“You can be assured that we will be working closely with our airline partners to work together on how we get back to business.”
Times are tough for everybody right now, but Dublin Airport is clearly doing all it can to navigate its way through today’s choppy waters.