‘SO you can charge what you like then?” I asked the little monopolist.
“That’s the way it is,” he responded smugly.
“And you can open when you like?” I queried.
“That’s the way it is too,” he riposted triumphantly.
Every businessman’s dream.
The scene was Dublin Airport last Sunday evening. The time 7.30 pm. Terminal One was not full (it rarely is any more) but there was a steady flow of passengers.
I had been seeking foreign currency near the departure gates, only to find that the bureau was closed — even at the height of tourist season.
So I had rung the office of ICE (International Currency Exchange), the sole foreign exchange operators at Dublin Airport, seeking a solution.
As you see, the man from ICE was as cocky as any conquering monopolist would be.
Earlier, another ICE employee had told me that all was now well; they were in the saddle at Dublin Airport; they had captured the foreign currency monopoly. A tender had been held a month ago when the Bank of Ireland suddenly lost the shared franchise and other bidders had been sent packing. Death to competition. Whoopee!
A few years ago Bank of Ireland enjoyed a monopoly at Dublin Airport. Passengers seeking foreign currency had been prisoners. Following a Seanad debate Mary O’Rourke, Minister for Transport of the day, insisted that the slovenly semi-state airport authority must allow competition in the lucrative foreign exchange business. Consequently the Bank of Ireland was reduced to a mere foothold with one bureau in the departure hall. Ever since then there had been competition; not enough, but sufficient to give the traveller a limited choice. During its period there, the Bank of Ireland consistently offered better value than ICE.
Now the roles are reversed. ICE is top dog, squatting at the summit of arguably the most lucrative honeytrap in Ireland.
The decision by the DAA to award the contract to ICE is bad enough, but the airport authority’s donation of the prize to ICE alone defies credibility.
On Friday, the DAA admitted ICE was now “the sole service provider” but insisted that “multi-currency ATMs at Dublin Airport are being introduced”. It added that “there are also likely to be foreign exchange ATMs in T2”. It never said who would be the providers.
It even insisted that “the Bank of Ireland will have a foreign exchange ATM in departures in Terminal One.”
Perhaps the DAA, as a state monopoly itself, feels far more comfortable supporting another monopoly. To hell with the travelling public. A big fee to the airport authority is the priority.
ICE passes on the big fee — in the past of around €1m — direct in penal charges to the unsuspecting passenger.
Last Monday ICE was charging a margin of around 10 per cent on dollar and sterling transactions, a massive spread even by traditionally punitive foreign currency standards. Late on Friday, AIB’s Grafton Street foreign exchange bureau was making a spread of less than six per cent on currency deals. On top of that, ICE was charging punters commission of as much as 2.35 per cent. The same AIB branch was charging one per cent with a €6.35 maximum commission.
The DAA has handed a pot of gold to ICE.
Ah well, old friends are best. Especially companies with track records.
Remember ICE’s track record? Remember? Is this the same ICE that only a few years ago came out with its hands up when the Sunday Independent exposed it as overcharging at Dublin Airport? Is this the same ICE that paid up €20,000 to charities chosen by the Sunday Independent after the Director of Consumer Affairs, Carmel Foley, found that it had ripped off passengers?.
The DAA has changed its name, but not its culture.
The Bank of Ireland is disappointed that it lost its share of the spoils, but sources in its foreign exchange department made a good point to me last week.
“It could be a poisoned chalice” said the insider, “the tender was for foreign exchange outlets at both Terminal One and Terminal Two. We would need to man new outlets at Terminal Two when it opens in November. That will mean more rents, more staff. We do not anticipate passenger numbers expanding when T2 opens. Probably the opposite. We do not want to go near T2”.
Bank of Ireland’s verdict on T2 is pessimistic.
So is everyone else’s.
Obviously there were no suckers seeking the contract for T2 alone.
When I returned to Dublin Airport on Monday evening I talked to a few staff at the DAA. Some would not speak to me, but two voiced their views about the management out at the airport.
They were unprintable; but the employees’ plight would turn a free market fan into a follower of the bearded trade unionist Jack O’Connor. One told me that “the top bosses at DAA continued to receive bonuses” while he and others had taken pay cuts.
Another DAA employee claimed that “staff who had grabbed golden handshakes of as much as €200, 000 were now being offered jobs in T2.”
His view was unwittingly supported by the words of Declan Collier , the €565,000-a-year DAA chief executive –and AIB director — who admitted at a recent Oireachtas committee that a hundred selected DAA staff received bonuses last year. Mr Collier himself pocketed a bonus of €1,000 a week in a year when the semi-state lost €13m.
Collier’s carry-on could convert a capitalist into a Trot.
Collier has built the T2 white elephant, destined to be the most underused terminal in Europe. It has cost hundreds of millions at a time when the State hasn’t a bean.
The DAA dinosaur is desperate to force tenants like ICE into its T2 baby. It will be fascinating to find out what incentives have been offered to potential occupants. Make no mistake, the main bait will be that it is open season on the passengers. Aer Lingus has already pulled a peach of a deal in T2. Without Aer Lingus, the DAA was facing a terminal without airplanes. Now it will only be a terminal without passengers.
Spinners at the DAA are suddenly bleating pathetically that T2 is a “90-year project”!
The rest of Dublin Airport is a slum. The lack of planning is bad enough. The parking charges are crazy. The entire airport has felt like a bomb site for a decade. Vital services, like foreign exchange, are only open at hours that suit the managers, not the customers. The ICEmen are cute enough to keep the currency traps open later airside, but only for incoming passengers who have little chance of any other source of euro after they land.
The DAA signs a contract with the ICEmen allowing them to savage the travelling public. ICE then abandons the needs of the lesser numbers flying out after five o’clock, but instead, is cherry-picking the weary mob of strangers arriving from the US and the UK in the evenings. The bureau in the baggage hall remains open late as the victims tumble into the ambush.
All hail to the old semi-state culture. Treat the top brass royally. Give them bloated salaries, bonuses in losing years, directorships of bankrupt banks and big cheque books. A world where the consumer is ripped off, the workforce demoralised, favoured tenants awarded monopolies, annual losses and herds of white elephants.
A few years ago the DAA was a top target for privatisation. Today, when the State is desperate for cash, a valuable asset has disintegrated into a liability, a goldmine for the favoured few but a hell hole for passengers.