The Wolf of Mullingar: We need to talk about Michael

Business editor Vincent Wall reflects on old battles and the Ryanair chief's appearance on Newstalk Breakfast

The Wolf of Mullingar: We need to talk about Michael

Eamonn Farrell, RollingNews

Let’s establish two things before we get into the detail of this particular contribution:

1) I’m writing this at the request of my beloved online colleagues. Intrepid data miners as they are, they appear convinced that you readers remain fascinated by Michael O’ Leary’s regular updates on the aviation world and beyond...and he had a go at the Dublin Airport Authority (daa) with Ivan and Chris on Newstalk Breakfast that begs a response. Fancy that.

2) I’ve a vested interest in this argument as I worked, in one way or another, at daa for several years.

I suppose I should make a third point; Michael O’ Leary is not only one of the most successful businessmen this country has ever produced, he’s also one of the most effective and entertaining communicators we’ve ever bred - and I still bear the metaphorical professional scars of those combined skills.

But, and even the daa in these days of heady travel growth has given up making this argument, he’s wrong about Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2. 

To be fair, I think he’s given up pushing this largely historic argument himself, but he was asked about his views of daa and Dublin Airport by the two amigos this week, and never one to pull his horse back from a hole in the fence, he charged in at full tilt.

So, according to the Mullingar gospel, "Terminal 2 cost €1.2bn and it’s a badly-designed facility built in the wrong place at the airport."

Well no, that’s not the case. Terminal 2 itself cost €700m at most and not €1.2bn - but what’s half a billion euro between friends when you can continue to bash a public sector utility when you get the chance?

That’s not to suggest €700m isn’t an awful lot of money, nor that Terminal 2, even in its current manifestation, couldn’t have been delivered more cost-effectively. 

But then we’re talking here about much more than a very large building, built under very challenging conditions in the middle of a working international airport (all of which adds to cost). It’s also a building that houses very complex equipment and IT and environmental systems.

The baggage system alone, for instance, cost almost €50m and guess what, it works perfectly. That hasn’t been the case at some other large, recently-built airport terminals which we could mention.

As for Terminal 2 being badly designed and built in the wrong place? Well thank God we didn’t get what Ryanair wanted for a second terminal. That was effectively a €200m shoebox that the airline would have dominated in the way it effectively dominates Terminal 1 now. In this scenario, Terminal 1 in all its near 50 year-old glory would have handled the long-haul traffic that has boomed since Terminal 2 opened five years ago.

The likes of Emirates and Etihad made it very clear down through the years to the hard-working aviation marketing team at Dublin Airport, they would never operate long-haul flights from the city unless a modern, spacious terminal, complete with the latest aviation systems and facilities such as comfortable business lounges, was delivered.

These two airlines alone now operate double daily services to the Gulf, and have transformed the travel experience for millions of passengers flying to and from Australia, Asia and Africa as well as the Middle East.

The Undertaker

I remember the day Terminal 2 officially opened in November 2010. It was the day the IMF arrived in Dublin to begin the bail-out process for our clapped out public finances; the economy and passenger numbers were in free-fall and the Taoiseach of the day, Brian Cowen, was showing all the stresses and strains of office in a very downbeat opening address.

Wikicommons

Michael O’ Leary actually brightened proceedings that day, turning up like Sherlock Holmes in one of his array of interesting disguises. On this occasion, he donned the full regalia of a Victorian undertaker with high top hat festooned with black ribbons. He was there, he declared, not to signal the opening of a new terminal, but of a massive white elephant that would copper-fasten the death of Irish tourism.

Well, Terminal 2, less than six years later, will handle more than 13 million passengers this year. Irish tourism, through its principal gateway of Dublin Airport, seems to be doing pretty well.

Major public investments such as airport terminals are multi-generational and need to try to anticipate traffic modes and volumes that may seem fanciful when they commence operation, depending on the prevailing economic climate. Michael knows this, but his ruthless focus on his own company’s performance always takes precedence when he enters the debate.

The planned new parallel runway at Dublin Airport is another such multi-generational investment, and Michael is right on this one: the daa should account transparently for every cent that’s spent on it. We don’t want to see that undertaker’s gear again any time soon...