The composition of the new Shannon Airport Authority has yet to be finalised by the Minister for Transport, but will not include the first term chairman, Pat Shanahan.
The Department of Transport press office confirmed this week that Mr Shanahan had written to Minister Noel Dempsey and asked not to be considered for nomination to the new authority which was due to take office on Wednesday of last week.
But one of the outgoing directors has already been given the minister’s imprimatur and when the new authority is in place it will include a senior figure from the Dublin Airport Authority.
The process involved in the formation of the new authority was derailed when Minister Dempsey directed that the number of directors was to be reduced. Communicating through the chairmen of the three airport authorities, in the case of Shannon the minister announced that his nominations would be shaved back from seven to five and directed that the number of directors to be elected by staff should also be halved to two, from the three SIPTU and one IMPACT union worker directors elected to the inaugural authority five years ago.
The reduction in worker representation on the boards prompted immediate action from the trade unions, with SIPTU in the vanguard.
The minister and the parent Dublin Airport Authority contended that the airport authorities were costing in excess of €2 million a year to run and cited the cost-cutting drive throughout the public service as grounds for the reduction in numbers sitting at the boardroom table.
SIPTU hit back by calling for the abolition of the Shannon and Cork boards, pointing out that as the autonomy promised on the break-up of the old Aer Rianta had not materialised and that the governing Dublin Airport Authority is still calling the shots, thereby confining the proceedings of the boards at Shannon and Cork to “talking shops”.
SIPTU took its case to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions where the backlash against the reduction in worker directors gained momentum. In the meantime SIPTU and other airport unions halted all the arrangements required to stage ballots of union membership to elect worker representatives to the new authorities.
In letters to Clare Fine Gael Deputy Pat Breen, who raised the matter in a Dáil Question last week, and to SIPTU Civil Aviation Branch, Minister Dempsey has not gone along with the union call for abolition of the subsidiary boards. Instead, he stated that he intends to keep the three authorities in place until at least 2011. At the end of last year, Minister Dempsey announced that the separation of the three State airports into independent entities was being deferred until 2011 “given the current very difficult circumstances in the aviation sector”.
“I took the view at the time that it would be best to provide a reasonable period of time to enable the boards and management to address the very significant challenges facing the aviation market. Given the agreement to defer the decision on final separation until 2011, the boards will stay in place until that decision is finalised,” the Minister stated.
The first Shannon Airport Authority completed its five-year term of office on September 15 and with no replacement directors nominated by either the minister or the unions, no authority has been in place for Shannon since September 16 when the new authority was scheduled to take come into office.
In response to questions from The Clare Champion, the Department of Transport press office stated this week that the minister has partly decided on his nominees to the new Shannon Authority and is in the process of naming the remainder.
Named to serve on the new board, as ministerial nominees are Ms Olivia Loughnane who, until re-structuring earlier this year, was part of the top management at Shannon Development. The new Shannon Development chief executive, Dr Vincent Cunnane, named her to act as secretary to the Mid-West Task Force, which Dr Cunnane is leading and which delivered its interim report in July.
The second nominee to be made public by the minister’s department is Ray Gray, who is currently the director of finance at the Dublin Airport Authority. His appointment brings the influence of the parent Dublin body directly onto the Shannon board.
There is widespread speculation at Shannon Airport and in top business circles in the region about the minister’s choice to chair the new authority. Mr Pat Shanahan came in from the business sector and since his airport appointment was added to the board of Shannon Development. He was given direct involvement in the management of Shannon Airport when he was elevated to executive chairman and from that position he spearheaded the cost-cutting drive, which shed 180 from the airport workforce.
Mr Shanahan resigned his executive function when it emerged that he had been kept in the dark about the intention of Aer Lingus to withdraw its Shannon-London Heathrow service when the Dublin Airport Authority had advance knowledge of the bombshell that hit Shannon in August 2007.