Airlines, airports and the tourism industry are preparing for an uptick in business as travel restrictions into and out of the country are eased.
From today, Ireland joins the rest of the EU in implementing the Digital Covid Certificate.
This means it will be possible to travel to Ireland from countries within the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland with no requirement to quarantine if you have proof of being fully vaccinated, having recovered from Covid-19 or have had a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival.
Passengers arriving from the UK and US and other countries to which the EU “emergency brake” has not been applied will also no longer have to self-isolate on arrival if they have valid proof of vaccination or that they have recovered from Covid-19.
However, the public health advice is that if you are not vaccinated, you should avoid high-risk activities, including international travel.
Amid the Delta variant spreading around Europe, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan has said NPHET is not discouraging people who are fully vaccinated from travelling abroad.
Speaking at last week’s NPHET briefing, he advised those still waiting for their vaccine to hold off on international travel.
Around 151,000 passengers are expected to pass through Dublin Airport this week, up from around 100,000 last week.
However, despite the increase the numbers will still be down around 80% on the same week in 2019, underlining the rebuilding challenges the sector still faces after a torrid 16 months.
Dublin and Cork airport operator, daa, said the daily average number of aircraft movements in Dublin for the next week will be 297, whereas normally at this time of the year it would be in the region of 750 aircraft arriving and departing daily.
Both airports have recorded a loss of over 43 million passengers in the past 16 months.
Nonetheless, the company, which has reduced its workforce by over 1,000 in the past year, said it is ready to welcome back passengers as restrictions ease.
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The Chief Executive of daa said the first day of reopening of travel under the EU Digital Covid Certificate has “gone really well”.
Speaking from Dublin Airport on RTÉ’s Six One, Dalton Philips said more than 22,500 people came through the airport, which was slightly higher than expected.
He said there were no issues at security or immigration and a maximum wait time of 10 to 15 minutes.
“The team have done a great job and there’s a real buzz about the place,” he said.
Mr Philips said with restrictions eased 36 airlines are flying to 130 destinations.
“This particular Monday two years ago, we would have 116,000 people go through the business so we’re still down 85%, but it is the build back that is key,” he added.
He said “most commentators” believe it will take three to five years for numbers to return to previous levels.
“We’re fortunate here in Ireland because we’ve got two home-based carriers in Ryanair and Aer Lingus, they’re well capitalised relatively speaking,” he said.
Mr Philips said it will be a “tremendous challenge” to have all previous routes operating again, adding it may take years. He said this is because Dublin is competing with cities like Manchester with far greater population numbers in their catchment area.
“It is very hard to convince airlines to come in”, he said. “We’re going to need a combined approach of Government, ministers on planes, with the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, ourselves obviously, wooing these airlines back.”
Asked about Cork Airport, Mr Philips said it was very difficult for regional airports and big airlines will first want to establish a strong presence in Dublin.
He said Cork Airport will be closed for 10 weeks later this year as DAA spends €40m to renew the runway.
Mr Philips said this will allow it to “attack the market” when it reopens.
Also speaking on the programme, a spokesperson for the Emirates said that while the airline will benefit from the EU Digital Covid Certificate “if it gets people flying”.
Enda Corneille, Country Manager for Emirates in Ireland, said today is an “important first step to removing the stigma around international travel”.
“It isn’t just about holidays. It’s reuniting families, it’s people travelling for work. It’s all about confidence now and building that confidence with the consumer,” he added.
Mr Corneille said he believes international travel will be “the conversation piece of the summer”.
Rebuilding demand will take time, says tourism sector
However, those involved in the travel and tourism sectors have warned that although bookings have picked up in recent weeks, it will take time to rebuild both demand and capacity.
Aer Lingus is expecting capacity this summer to be more than 60% lower than it was in the same period of 2019.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, the Chief Operating Officer of Aer Lingus said passengers will have a different experience at the airport and onboard planes today, but that staff are looking forward to welcoming people back onboard.
“It’s an optimistic day,” Peter O’Neill said.
He added that 66 flights will operate today, compared to 346 flights on the same day two years ago.
Mr O’Neill said all those who are travelling are fully vaccinated, recovered from Covid-19 or have a clear PCR tests, adding that these are important reassurance measures.
“With the introduction of the EU Digital Covid Certificate, together with the roll-out of the vaccination programme, which is powering ahead, there is a real sense of optimism in the air,” said Mary Considine, CEO of Shannon Group.
“Although there is a long road ahead of us to get airport passenger numbers back to anything like 2019 levels, it is important to acknowledge these milestones on our journey to recover and rebuild our business.”
The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has said the number of flights during the first half of the year was 62% lower than the same period in 2019.
This represented the worst half-year reduction for flight numbers here since records began.
It said that while the resumption of non-essential overseas travel is an important milestone in Ireland’s social and economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, the reopening must be safe, permanent and sustainable.
“Aviation is an enabling industry for economic and social well-being,” said Peter Kearney, Chief Executive of the IAA.
“Whilst remaining conscious of the continued public health risks and the challenges for the aviation sector, we are eager to reopen Ireland to the world in the coming months.”
Last month, commercial flights at Dublin were down by 77.6% compared to June 2019, with Cork flights 85% lower and flights using Shannon down 73%, the Irish Aviation Authority said.
Passengers must follow health measures
Airlines and airport operators are reminding passengers that as well as requiring proof of vaccination, negative test or recovery from Covid-19, passengers using facilities will also need to abide by other public health measures.
Face masks are mandatory in terminal buildings and on board flights, while only staff, crew and passengers will be permitted entry into terminal buildings, where people will be expected to maintain social distance, use hand sanitising stations and follow additional signage in place.
An assistant professor of virology in UCD, however, has said that travel overseas will inevitably lead to an increase in Covid cases.
Professor Gerald Barry told RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne that he would love to be travelling again, but is concerned that mixed messaging is giving the impression that the pandemic is over and people can all begin to live normally again.
“Although I am very much in favour of moving towards an environment where we can live with this virus, it is concerning to give that message that the virus has gone away,” he said. “We are very far from that place.”
Professor Barry said that any factor that adds to an increase in cases will make it more difficult to keep the virus under control.
He said that more should be done around the country in terms of managing the Covid risk generally that would allow travel and indoor hospitality open safely.