Allegations of political interference at the highest levels were made when members of Clare County Council aired concerns about Shannon Airport at their October meeting.
Fianna Fáil councillor Pat McMahon is recognised as one of Shannon Airport’s strongest advocates on the council. However, even he appeared exasperated following the recent disclosure of passenger number data by the Central Statistics Office.
After being approached by staff fearful for the future, he tabled a motion calling on the council to examine additional strategies to support Shannon Airport.
Commenting on the CSO passenger figures for Irish airports during the year 2015-16, Cllr McMahon noted that Shannon’s numbers represented just 5% of passengers at all Irish airports. From this, he deduced that Cork Airport is moving ahead in the rankings.
According to Cllr McMahon, Knock Airport now has more regional flights than Shannon. Unnerved by the withdrawal of United Airlines’ Chicago service for the coming winter season, he claimed the Newark service will be gone for five months and is not hopeful of Aer Lingus’ intentions.
“That means we are left with Norwegian Airlines. To be fair, Norwegian has been a great success but it’s sad to see Shannon in this position and the workers are worried about that,” said Cllr McMahon.
Remarking that busloads of passengers can be seen leaving Limerick for Dublin Airport on a daily basis, he said, “The services are not there and the fact that people are going to other airports outside the Midwest region is a great worry”.
Cllr PJ Ryan believes that management in Shannon is doing a “reasonable job”, but feels they are operating “with one hand tied behind their back”. He claimed that Shannon Group PLC answers to the Minister for Transport who is strongly influenced by the Dublin Airport lobby.
“It’s obvious that Dublin wants everything aviation-related. I know of two airlines that specifically requested landing rights in Shannon but they were refused. Now both of those airlines fly directly to Dublin. Even though Shannon Airport has been given its own autonomy,” said Cllr Ryan, “it is still controlled by a Minister who is under the influence of Dublin Chamber of Commerce and the Dublin Airport Authority.”
Cllr Ryan believes that this influence extends beyond Ireland and read from an email from Bill Lewis, chairman of the Clareman’s Association in New York: “…the US Customs and Border Protection website only listed Dublin as having preclearance from Ireland. Shannon wasn’t listed.”
Fianna Fáil councillor Pat Daly wants the new motorway extension to Tuam used to best advantage and suggested that Shannon Group should appoint Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper, Aiden O’Shea and Joe Canning as brand ambassadors in Kerry, Mayo and Galway to encourage passengers, not presently using Shannon for trans-Atlantic flights. However, his party colleague Cllr Cathal Crowe cautioned against building up hopes based on the Tuam extension. “Motorways go two ways, there’s now a greater incentive for people to consider flying from Knock Airport which will see huge opportunity as well.”
Fine Gael councillor Johnny Flynn refocused the debate on other aspects of Shannon Group responsibility. He said that if Shannon Group is looking solely at their properties within Shannon Airport and are not assisting in developing the wider economy “then I think they will fail”.
Cllr Flynn said it is his understanding that Shannon Group sold Raheen Business Park and Limerick Technology Park to the IDA in order to focus on Shannon Airport and the immediate environs. Insisting that Shannon Group has a responsibility to the wider area, he concluded, “I would ask them to come to this chamber to explain what they’re doing about the wider Clare economy.”
Harking back to the original motion, Cllr Gerry Flynn said this could be turned around to ask Shannon Group PLC what additional strategies it could have to support County Clare? Picking up where his namesake Johnny had left off, he asked how Shannon Group can justify building a new office block after vacating the former Shannon Development headquarters building which was refurbished at enormous cost?
Rather than using this building and adopting a partnership approach with the local community, he said the decision to close it has left SkyCourt businesses struggling. Gerry Flynn also urged Shannon Group to come to Clare County Council, into a public forum and not behind closed doors as before. “The public has a right to hear what they have to say,” he said.
Local authority CEO Pat Dowling stated, “the future of Shannon Airport is in all our interests and we support it on a daily and weekly basis.”