AER Lingus chiefs has reassured local Dáil deputies the airline it has no intention to withdraw the lucrative Shannon to Heathrow slots in the near future.
However, the national airline has confirmed it has no plans to reopen its base in Shannon, stating this would not be the best option in the current climate.
Concern has been expressed by Deputy Cathal Crowe and Deputy Joe Carey there is no legal guarantee once a commitment given during the sale of the government share in Aer Lingus to AIG ends this September.
The two Clare deputies raised a number of issues and questioned senior Aer Lingus management during a briefing for Oireachtas members at the Transport and Communications Oireachtas committee this week.
Aer Lingus chief corporate affairs officer, Donal Moriarty told Deputy Carey normally the airline has three return services daily between Shannon and Heathrow, which were operational before the mandated cuts due to capacity issues in the London hub.
Mr Moriarty confirmed this has now been reduced to two daily to and from Shannon but the company is trying to reaccommodate passengers who are disrupted by that cancellation with services on the same day, which they were largely managing to achieve to minimise inconvenience.
Deputy Carey asked how the airline decided what route should be cancelled in Dublin, Cork or Shannon. Mr Moriarty said the company didn’t want to cut routes but had to do this because they were mandated cuts.
“It is an operational decision based on what will discommode the least number of passengers and what is our ability to reaccommodate them most efficiently. The lens we use is the customer’s lens and trying to accommodate the customer as quickly as possible.
Figures up to July 20 show Aer Lingus cut 43 services on the Dublin route, 12 in Cork and 11 in Shannon.
Acknowledging Dublin Airport had taken the biggest hit, Deputy Carey pointed out the loss of flights in Shannon had a disproportionate impact because it has far fewer flights than Dublin.
“The Shannon Heathrow route is our connection to the world. It is our lifeline to the Heathrow hub. When this is removed or discommoded in any way, it has an impact on tourism, business and future investment. I would ask you would take this into account in future,” he said.
Having resumed services from Shannon to Heathrow last September, Mr Moriarty said passengers can buy a ticket from the Clare airport to Heathrow for next June, as “commercially these services are continuing as normal”.
Deputy Carey asked if the company could given an even stronger commitment this vital route will continue. Mr Moriarty said they resumed services from Shannon as quickly as possible including transatlantic last April, which were previously shut down due to Covid-19 restrictions.
He said the company can see no reason why services from Shannon can’t continue and prosper into the future.
In view of the problems experienced in Dublin with lost bags and long delays, Deputy Carey asked if the company had plans to increase services from Shannon.
Aer Lingus chief executive officer, Lynne Embleton said the disruption in Dublin should be temporary and noted typically airlines provide a wide range of flights from hubs because they have access to a short haul network to provide enough passengers to supplement point-to-point ones.
As the company emerges from Covid-19, Ms Embleton said management would look at where they can deploy aircraft to short haul routes.
Deputy Carey said he was informed that a lot of Aer Lingus flights were being cancelled because the company doesn’t have enough employees. Out of the 81 Aer Lingus employees who were working in the Shannon base before it closed, he said about 31 had transferred to Dublin.
Ms Embleton stressed the company is well resourced for its current schedule of flights and was cancelling a lot less than other network carriers.
Mr Moriarty said the company has 91% of the 4,500 staff it employed in 2019 for 81% of the level of passengers that were carried three years ago.
He stressed the company’s Shannon crew base was closed to ensure the viability of its routes out of this airport.
Deputy Crowe described the sale of the government’s shareholding in Aer Lingus as a “great political failure for Shannon” and noted the certainty for Shannon/Heathrow slots ends in September.
Ms Embleton said it has no intention of changing these slots.
Mr Moriarty said the Heathrow slots are not dedicated to specific routes, and the company made a commitment in 2015 to replicate its services for a seven year-period and to secure the approval of the Minister for Finance and Transport for any disposal of slots.
“We are operating and selling these routes, they are viable and we see no reason to change them. We actually grew these services since 2015,” he said.
Deputy Crowe said while it makes commercial sense to continue the Heathrow slots from Shannon, there may come a time in the future when this is not the case and people’s worst nightmare comes to fruition.