NIALL has left the building. After 41 years at Shannon Airport, many of them as its operations director, Niall Maloney has now retired.
Always hugely enthusiastic about his work and the success of Shannon, this week he said he had really enjoyed his career.
“It has been a wonderful experience. Would I want to do it again? I’d absolutely do it again. I loved the airport, loved my job, but I knew it was time to move on. It’s about energy, about new thought processes. I really wish Niall Kerins well as the new director.”
Shannon airport has been at the heart of the Maloney family, with Niall’s father working there before him, having been headhunted by Dr Brendan O’Regan in the early 1950s.
Niall’s own career started there in the early 1980s. “I was very fortunate that I got a temporary job in the airport in 1981. I thought I was going to be there for six months but I was still there 41 years later.”
He actually began working on the finance side, and was temporary for several years.
“I was made permanent in 1985 and I got engaged the next day!”
Two years later he moved into operations and straight away he loved the hands-on nature of the new role.
“It was just something that grabbed me, it was functional, something that you could see and feel, it was exciting. From the day I joined the operations in 1987 there were never two days the same.
“There was always a challenge, always something to be organised, always an airline to placate or keep happy, customers to meet their demands and needs. I was very fortunate that there were people there who mentored me who had been there a long time and they passed on the baton. I hope that I’ve done the same now.”
Working in operations and subsequently directing them meant co-operating with others and working under a certain degree of pressure.
“Really when you work in operations you don’t work alone, you work as part of a team involved in it. In latter years I was managing the team to perform.
“With an airport you can’t afford to get it wrong any day because it’s a perishable product. A customer coming in today won’t be coming in tomorrow, so you need to get it right on the day.
“We didn’t get it right every day, but you learned lessons and you try to improve for the next passenger and the next day.
“Day by day you’re trying to enhance the customer experience, satsify the airlines that we had, and try to move things forward. And it is challenging for a regional airport like Shannon to move things forward.”
It was an all-consuming role, he said, something that required huge levels of time and energy.
“You don’t go into this if you’re looking for a quiet life. It’s quite demanding of your time, it can be stressful, absolutely, there’s no doubt about it.”
Keeping people safe was the top priority, and when there were emergencies he had to spring into action, no matter when they came up.
“For me it was always about the safety of the operation and we had a very good safety record, but we’ve had challenges. We’ve dealt with hundreds of emergencies, hundreds of medical diversions, and during my time we’ve had a number of serious aircraft incidents, but thankfully there was no loss of life.
“It really was a team effort, you had our fire service, our operations officers and duty managers. And it wasn’t just the airport on its own, we had great support from the Gardai, the HSE, the local authority fire service in dealing with these issues.
“These issues don’t happen at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon, it could be half five on a Sunday morning, you get a cold call and you have to be able to act. But the key thing is not relying on one person, it’s a team effort, there’s a plan in place, it’s been tried and tested and after every incident you do a review. What did we get right, what did we do wrong, what do we need to change. It really is a continuous review process, and as I said it isn’t done on its own.”
He estimates that he was involved in dealing with 250-300 aircraft emergencies, along with countless technical or medical diversions, each one of which posed a challenge, some more serious than others.
With his career now over, three incidents in particular stand out.
“We had an incident with Futura in 2001, Aer Lingus Regional in 2011 and then we had an incident involving Omni Air in 2019.
“Those are probably the three big aircraft emergencies when there was significant damage done to aircraft where emergency plans really had to kick in big time.
“But thankfully the plans we had in place worked, there was no loss of life, probably significant damage to the aircraft, but if that’s all it is, that’s a good day’s work.”
In the Futura incident, the nosewheel of an aircraft collapsed on landing, skidding down the runway for over a mile, prompting a full evacuation.
“You had all the people coming in, and it was a really wild winter’s day. I had a brand new Magee suit on me that day, it was the first and last time I got to wear it. It got wrecked in the weather, and the foam that was used at the time was quite corrosive!” he recalls.
Ten years later there was another nosewheel incident with an Aer Lingus aircraft, at 10am on a Sunday.
Days like that see a variety of questions posed all at once.
“The challenge often isn’t about that incident, but you have other operators who are in the airport who want to depart, planes who want to land.
“You could have a couple of thousand passengers in the terminal building and the press are on enquiring. You’re dealing with an incident and also the other things that go with that.”
In 2019 there was a fire on an Omni aircraft and he says the airport’s fire service’s response was “absolutely exemplary”.
When such incidents happened, there are a lot of people to think of, all of them with different priorities.
“It’s about keeping the airline happy, the other airlines, the passengers, the media. You’re planning for a reopening, it’s one thing being closed because an aircraft is disabled on your airfield, but how long is it going to be there, what’s the plan to get the aircraft off?
“You have other agencies, the Air Accident Investigation Unit, the Irish Aviation Authority, your own corporate body which was the DAA and has been Shannon Airport group since 2013.
“It’s about keeping people informed of the status of the incident so they’re all aware of it.”
While there was a certain buzz in responding to problems as best he could, he didn’t find that much satisfaction afterwards, generally being more preoccupied with any errors than any successes.
“For me, and I don’t know if it’s a family failing, but you look at the things you didn’t do right.
“You have the adrenaline rush of the incident, the response to it and then you look at things you could have done differently, I could have done this, could have contacted that person.
“You learn a lesson from every incident and if it’s a negative lesson the key thing is not to repeat it. I’ve learned more through my career from my failures than my successes.
“It’s like when I played sports, the training coming up to a final was great, playing the final was great, but once the final was over it was a bit of a downer actually; you had no goal, nothing to go for, so you had to look for the next fix.”
The great and the good have all come to Shannon over the years, and he learned a valuable lesson the first time he greeted a VIP.
“The first day I met a VIP flight as operations manager, I shook the hand of the well dressed bodyguard, thinking that was the VIP! I didn’t think of the guy in the shorts and polo shirt who was the VIP. Lesson learned, I never went to any VIP flight since that date without a picture of the person!”
While he was in operations Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin also visited, Yeltsin famously not getting off the plane, while he was also involved in preparing for the visits of US Presidents George W Bush, and Donald Trump. He also met the Ukraine’s President Zelensky a couple of times.
Niall says that generally dealing with VIPs wasn’t nearly as tough as dealing with the requests that came in before they ever arrived.
“The VIP is the easiest part of it. It’s the 300 people they send on the advance team that’s the challenge.”
Ultimately he said his job was about making things look and feel simple, even if there was huge effort going in.
“Your role is to bring everyone together so that when the VIP arrives it’s a seamless transition for the VIP. It’s like the old story of the swan going gracefully across the pond, but the legs are going like bejaysus underneath.”
It was always important not to lose sight of the airport’s really important customers.
“They’re (those representing VIPs) quite happy if you can close down the airport to look after all their needs. But Aer Lingus, Ryanair, United, are going to be there the next day, so they need to be kept as happy as possible, understanding there are challenges from a security point of view and operational challenges. The key thing is to remember whose putting food on the table and that’s your regular customers.”
He met Colin Powell several times and he is the one VIP who stands out most in his mind.
“The reason he stands out to me is because when we had George W Bush here in 2004, out of the hundreds of people in the crowd he picked me out and said ‘Good to see you Niall, I just brought a couple of hundred extra people this time’. Normally you’d meet him at Shannon early on a Sunday morning or late on a Friday night with nobody around. But in the throes of hundreds of people he sought me out and said hello.”
He leaves Shannon at a time that it is on an upward trajectory.
“The outlook for 2023 is very positive, the amount of new services announced before Christmas is great. There is a great choice with United back, the extra Ryanair services, Aer Lingus going year round to the States. I do think with one or two other announcements possibly to come, it’s a positive future.”
Niall played competitive soccer until he was 40, while he then competed in triathlons at an international level.
With a bit more time available he will continue to exercise frequently, something that stood him in good stead throughout a stressful career.
“When I was working it was about destressing, the only thing you worry about when you’re running along an embankment down by Ardnacrusha is breathing! I need to spend some time with my long suffering wife Gráinne as well.”
He says he was sad to be leaving a job that he really loved, and which really motivated him.
“I got a huge buzz out of going to the airport every day. I still got the same buzz going in the front door at the very end.
“Was I sad leaving? Absolutely, but I knew it was the right thing. it was the right thing for me personally, but it was also the right thing in terms of the next phase in the airport’s future. And I do believe the airport has a strong future.”
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.