Why would anybody be surprised at the chaos that engulfed Dublin Airport last weekend? Why the shock in the body politic?
If you pursue certain policies against all the best advice and practice then what do you expect? The chaos was waiting to happen but away from the bright lights of the airport, the same policies are doing far greater long-term damage.
Once upon a long ago, all the way back in 2020, everybody was really grateful for our frontline workers. For a fleeting few months those who keep the country running, many on low levels of pay, were the subject of rare appreciation. At the time nobody included security staff at the airports in their thoughts but this was entirely understandable as nobody was flying.
Around the same time, the Daa which runs Dublin and Cork airports — and the latter’s status is a contentious issue — decided to cut jobs. The premise was the collapse of air travel. Some believe that the Daa was not letting a good opportunity go to waste.
Replacing secure jobs with insecure contracts is all the rage in commerce these days, but the Daa’s CEO, Dalton Philips, insisted during the week that no such bad thoughts were at work in the company’s redundancy plan.
Around one-third of the company’s 3,000 employees took up the generous redundancy. Among them were 249 security staff, from a full complement of nearly 800. Usually, when an attractive redundancy is offered it is aimed at cutting the workforce for the long term, or even for survival.
In this case, a pandemic was the reason. Even in the depths of the pandemic, we all knew it was transitory, that in time it would pass. Yet, the medium term, even the short term, played no part in the decision to let skilled workers go. It should also be noted that the board, which includes worker representatives, gave the nod to cutting jobs.
When the pandemic ended — within months of the completion of the redundancy process — it was time to begin recruiting workers to fill the jobs that had just been made redundant. In this, the Daa was slow out of the traps.
Could you blame them? The decision to let go of all those security staff was suddenly looking very foolish, even reckless. Unless, of course, the plan all along had been to recruit new workers at lesser pay and conditions. Mr Philips insisted during the week this was not the case. New workers were to be given contracts that would guarantee at least 20 hours work a week.
“Our security teams are paid €14.14, that’s the entry-level, that’s 35% higher than the national minimum wage, and obviously, it’s a pensionable job with the security of employment and it has additional benefits,” Mr Philips said.
What the minimum wage has to do with it is unclear. Does the CEO, who is on €250,000-a-year, benchmark the wages of all those with less than a college education against the minimum wage? Against what exactly is his own remuneration benchmarked?
In any event, a minimum of 20 hours a week is not exactly a basis on which to carve out a half-decent standard of living.
Neither was recruitment going to be a simple matter of enticing a few people at a good hourly rate to do a bit of work here and there during busy periods. Frontline staff such as security personnel require training. “That process (recruiting) takes quite a long time because of the training that’s required for these jobs,” Graeme McQueen, head of media relations at Daa, said last Monday.
Ultimately, it is difficult to conclude other than that the main objective was to use the opportunity to cut numbers and rehire in a manner that would save the company money. One might well ask what precisely has been learned from the pandemic if this is considered an acceptable approach to frontline workers, particularly at a time when those on low pay are feeling the sharp end of soaraway inflation.
The other prevailing policy that contributed to the chaos last weekend is that of regionalisation. The great strides that the country has made economically in the last 30 years have not been matched by a political will to spread the prosperity.
The greater Dublin area is now a sprawl that seeps into all surrounding counties and has contributed in a major way to the housing crisis and quality of life issues. Nowhere is the failure to arrest this imbalance more prevalent than in aviation policy.
Back in 2004, the government made all the right noises about spreading around air travel. Legislation was introduced to break up Aer Rianta, which controlled Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports. The plan was to allow the latter two to go their own way.
Central to the plan was a fair divvying up of the assets of Aer Rianta and a guarantee that neither Cork nor Shannon would be burdened with disproportionate debt. Then they went and spoiled it all by handing the job of breaking up to the newly established Daa.
It was akin to a divorce in which one of the parties gets to decide how exactly everything will be split up. Over the following years, various factors played further into the Daa agenda and while Shannon did manage to break free, Cork remained in the fold out of necessity rather than choice. One of the big stumbling blocks was a huge debt incurred in the major renovation and expansion in Cork.
A report compiled by local businesses in 2018 revealed that 46% of international visitors to Killarney came through Dublin Airport, compared to 29% from Shannon and just 11% from Cork.
Passenger numbers tell a starker tale. In 2012, Dublin had 19m passengers, which by 2019 had increased to 32.9m. Cork by contrast went from 2.34m to 2.5m over the same period. Practically all of the growth in traffic coming out of the economic slump in the early 2010s went to the capital’s airport.
Today, one of the hottest tickets in Cork is a seat on the bus to Dublin Airport. That was then, the government today might say, but sure look at Project 2040 which is brimming with great promises at regionalisation. The problem remains that the government appears more in thrall to the dictates of the market than putting its stamp on economic development in a way that spreads benefit right across the state.
The market is also the reason behind the bizarre employment practices at Dublin Airport that saw security staff made redundant and rehiring begin months later. Is this really how we intend to go forward following the experience of the pandemic, the existential challenge posed by climate change, the growing divide in certain sections of society?
Good luck to all in the air and on the ground this weekend.