As the clock ticks down on Brexit, almost every day there are warnings of dire consequences if no deal is reached prior to the deadline next March when Britain is set to opt out of the European Union.
Back in 2012, a different kind of separation drama played out in this region when Shannon Airport won its independence from the DAA, the State airport authority.
Apart from one or two individuals, namely Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley and former Aer Rianta International (ARI) director, Liam Skelly, there were no dire warnings.
In fact, Dooley probably felt like the boy who cried wolf as civil society had just fought an acrimonious battle over the Aer Lingus slots at Heathrow.
Having come through that very difficult period, many people, rightly, felt a close affinity to their local airport and were not over-enamoured by the DAA.
They were also being assured by senior Government figures that separation would be good for Shannon with 2.5 million passengers predicted by 2017 and up to 3,000 new jobs created within three to five years.
More than five years later the figures have been shown to be over-optimistic. In fact, the deadline for 2.5m passengers is now pushed out to 2021, significantly more than the 1.5m passengers using the facility in 2017, as recorded by the CSO.
According to the old saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” A recent statement issued on behalf of Shannon Airport boasted the “continued resurgence” leading to a 6.6% increase in passenger numbers.
The statement continued, “The surge across the first six months suggests also that 2018 will be Shannon’s best year as an independent entity outside of 2014 when double-digit growth was achieved.”
Group CEO Matthew Thomas said, “It’s going to be a really positive year for Shannon… this validates the confidence we have in our capacity to grow services and passenger numbers and, in doing so, deliver real gains to the region.”
While the statement didn’t specify actual numbers, the reality is that Shannon, Cork and Knock airports continue to lose market share to Dublin.
By the end of Q1 2018, CSO figures show that Dublin Airport increased its share of the passenger market by almost 1% to 86.99% compared to last year. Shannon’s market share fell to just 3.97%.
Bear in mind that Ireland has been experiencing a tourism boom resulting in 6,940,230 passengers using our airports during Q1 2018, according to the CSO.
That’s 261,486 more than the same period last year but only 5,353 of these, or 2.04%, used Shannon while Dublin serviced 247,908 additional passengers, 94.8% of the total.
Shannon separated from the Dublin Airport Authority on December 31st 2012. The price to be paid for going it alone from the State’s airport authority included the closure of Shannon Development, a model of balanced regional development for many years that brought growth and prosperity to counties Clare, Limerick, North Tipperary, North Kerry and West Offaly.
The loss of Aer Rianta International to Dublin was another huge cost. From its origins in Shannon, ARI pioneered duty-free shopping to become remarkably successful with a turnover in excess of one billion US dollars and employing over 3,000 people across the world.
When the business plan for an independent Shannon Airport was launched, Leo Varadkar was Transport Minister. Commenting on the target of 2.5 million passengers he stated, “Quite frankly, if Shannon can’t achieve that kind of growth by 2021, there is no future for the airport….”
According to the CSO’s last full year statistics for 2017, Shannon had 1,599,390 passengers while Cork had 2,301,450. To meet the target set by the man who is now Taoiseach, management must convince another one million passengers to make use of the facility.
Fianna Fáil councillor Pat McMahon is of the view that management at Shannon Airport needs to step up its marketing campaign if it is win over more business.
Speaking at Clare County Council’s July meeting, Cllr McMahon claimed that up to 40 coaches per day are ferrying passengers from the Midwest to “feed the economic monster that is Dublin Airport”.
Cllr McMahon is concerned that an increasing number of people in the Midwest are opting to travel from Dublin Airport despite Shannon’s ease of access.
Urging Government to strategise for a fairer distribution of passengers outside Dublin for at least the next 15 years, the Newmarket-on-Fergus councillor commented, “Shannon has the capacity and the infrastructure, but what it needs are extra flights.”
Recently elected Mayor of Clare, Cllr Michael Begley, hopes that common sense will prevail. With the Irish Open coming to Lahinch next year, Mayor Begley expressed the view that Shannon Airport management must work to encourage more people to travel through the facility rather than being bussed down from Dublin for the day.