John Bruton was taoiseach in the 1990s when aviation entrepreneur Ulick McEvaddy first suggested a private terminal on Dublin Airport land he owns with his brother Des. The plan went nowhere. But now the brothers’ push to sell the same lands has opened questions about the airport’s future.
The McEvaddys hope to strike a deal this summer. Their move raises tricky questions for the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and Government, which ultimately controls the airport operator. At issue is the potentially high valuation on airport lands — many millions of euro, inevitably — and whether it is in the DAA’s interests to allow another owner into its backyard.
The brothers have aligned with fellow landowners to sell some 260 acres in the centre of the airport. The location of the three adjoining lots — between the north and south runways, near the control tower — gives the vendors extraordinary power.
Previously, there was no real threat to DAA interests. The other owners kept their land in agricultural use and the McEvaddys stuck with a terminal plan no government would accept. Neither Bruton nor any of his five successors ever warmed to the notion of a private terminal competing with the State-run rival. Still, the land has obvious potential for airport use at some future point and is zoned by Fingal county council for that purpose.
Whether any other owner would make headway with a private terminal proposal where the McEvaddys failed is an open question. But would the DAA want anyone else taking control of land it might seek for the next phase of its development? The brothers held their site for 27 years.
The DAA has approached the McEvaddys to buy such land before, making a 2017 offer in the region of €20 million to take control of their 123 acres for “secondary” airport activities. Yet that too went nowhere, the money being far fess than the €1 million per acre the brothers reputedly sought.
This might well be seen as shadowboxing, circling before the first real punch is thrown. Now the decision to advertise the land has set in motion a public sale that raises strategic and financial questions for the DAA and the Government.
In the background are questions about airport growth prospects. No matter when capacity in the two-terminal campus is reached, building a third will always be a long-term project.
True, the vendors are always likely to say their land is the “preferred location” for a new terminal. That is clearly in their interests. But there are questions too for the DAA: Where else might a third terminal be built? And if not built within the airport campus would that be more cumbersome or costly?
The McEvaddys have played their hand. The response will be telling.