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A bus driver shortage has forced Aircoach to take matters into its own hands

The coach group is facing tougher competition for workers from rivals Bus Éireann and Go-Ahead.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

INCREASED COMPETITION AND a skills shortage in Ireland has forced multimillion-euro bus operator Aircoach to ditch its long-standing policy of only hiring qualified drivers.

Until July of this year, the company – which connects Cork, Belfast and parts of the capital with Dublin Airport – only hired recruits already in possession of the category-D driving licence that’s required to operate its vehicles.

But increased competition for workers from rivals Bus Éireann and Go-Ahead, coupled with the country’s low unemployment rate, means Aircoach has had to change tactic in order to ensure it has enough available workers to meet future demand.

Recently appointed CEO Dervla McKay told Fora that Aircoach has launched a new training programme to combat the issue.

“There are a lot of other operators looking for staff as well. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels, and we do need to explore every avenue to ensure we’ve got enough staff to fulfil all of our timetables, which we still currently do,” she said.

Aircoach has rolled out a scheme where it will foot the bill for new recruits to obtain their category-D licence. In exchange, workers will enter a training bond agreement with the company for two years.

McKay said Aircoach will interview applicants first to ensure they’re good with customers: “There’s no point having a driver who’s the best driver in the world but is not polite and respectful towards our customers.”

The company will also assess their driving skills in a car “so we can check that we’re happy with their general driving standard and we feel that they could potentially make a good coach or bus driver”.

Donegal native Dervla McKay has been appointed the new Managing Director of Aircoach Dervla McKay Source: Aircoach

New technology

Donegal native McKay took up the role of chief executive at Aircoach three months ago but has worked for its UK-based parent, First Group, since 2005, mainly in operational roles.

When asked what she hopes to achieve during her tenure, McKay said she is exploring new technology that could help streamline the customer experience.

At the end of May, Aircoach introduced on-board contactless payment facilities, which now account for 15% of its offline transactions.

“That speeds up the time for the drivers as well. They’re not having to handle change. It reduces the security risks for the drivers … it reduces the cash transit bill as well,” McKay said.

The company expects to launch a new mobile ticketing service by the end of December, after which customers who use Aircoach several times a year will be able to buy tickets in bulk and download them to their phones.

The company is also looking to borrow an idea from its parent in the UK to improve communication with its 250 staff in Ireland.

Next month, it will roll out a ‘colleague app’ that serves as a kind of staff notice board. Workers will eventually be able to use the app to swap shifts with each other.

“It’s basically cutting down all the paperwork and the admin,” McKay said.

The internal app will also integrate Aircoach’s existing ‘drive green’ system, which monitors drivers’ performance and gives them feedback in real-time. As well as cutting down costs, McKay hopes the colleague app will also help with employee retention.

“It makes us more efficient and it hopefully will engage the team a lot better,” she said.

Expansion plans

Aircoach – which reported Irish sales of €25 million and a pre-tax profit of over €6 million for the year to 25 March 2017 – currently operates 54 coaches and 12 car park shuttle buses on behalf of airport operator DAA.

It plans to expand its fleet and will roll out new vehicles for its Cork-to Dublin services for the winter.

McKay said the company is also considering new routes but declined to disclose where, saying “that’s something that needs a bit more thought”.

She noted that launching a new service requires a significant amount of investment.

“The big thing for any operator is finding space to run services out of and finding adequate depot facilities.

“You need to be able to wash (vehicles), you need to be able to fuel. There’s obviously the environmental considerations and everything like that.

“It’s a massive, massive investment setting up any new service. You’re talking hundreds of thousands if not millions (of euro), depending on the frequency you want to do, just to run one service for the year.

“Where the right opportunity exists, of course I’ll look at it.”

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Written by Conor McMahon and posted on Fora.ie

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