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Shannon: 70 years of transatlantic flying today

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SHANNON International Airport is one of Ireland’s greatest success stories. It has had a pivotal role in the development of the Mid-West and even further afield; opening the doors to industry and employment and underpinning the economy of the region.

Shannon Airport has given birth to a town of its name and helped, directly and indirectly, to support small communities, which otherwise would have slipped into oblivion.

Having an international airport on our own doorstep is a huge advantage. It has set County Clare apart from other western counties, as a place where journeys begin and end, where passengers transit en route to and from far-flung places.
On Thursday, May 18, 1939, the first aircraft to land at the then Rineanna Airport was the Irish Air Corps’ Aero Anson A43. Less than two months later, the first passenger aircraft landed at Rineanna on July 11, a Belgian airliner (a tri-motor Savoia Marchetti S-73 of Sabena).

However, it was the first scheduled flight from the United States into Shannon Airport 70 years ago on October 24, 1945 that marked out Shannon’s role as a crossroads in international aviation. The Flagship London, an American Overseas Airlines (AOA) DC4, had flown from Gander to Shannon in eight hours and 20 minutes. In 1945, Shannon also began receiving scheduled aircraft from Trans World Airways (TWA) and Pan American Airways (Pan AM). With advances in technology, the flying boat aspect of the airport was never completed.

Everything about Shannon has been about pushing the boundaries; in the early days it was brash and exciting. Not only was there an aura about transatlantic air travel at that time but there was certain prestige attached to working anywhere at the airport.

So much of what we have in this region today has stemmed from Shannon Airport, which had such a whirlwind beginning under the direction of Dr Brendan O’Regan. “Visionary” is how he is described by many who look back on the history of Shannon. Long before Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can” election mantra, Brendan O’Regan and his team made things happen. Not for him the red tape of government departments; he looked at the bigger picture and often it was a case of press ahead and worry about small details later.

Shannon became a byword for innovation. The world’s first duty free shop opened there in 1947, while 1951 heralded the opening of the Shannon College of Hotel Management.

In 1954, a direct mail-order shopping service was set up to expand sales into North America. Ireland’s only regional development agency, Shannon Free Airport Development Company (SFADCO and later Shannon Development) emerged in 1961, along with Shannon Free Zone, which attracted industry from around the world. Today, the free zone has the single biggest collection of US industries on the island of Ireland, among them several European headquarters.

Despite many setbacks, some caused by the cyclical nature of the airline industry and flagging economic conditions and others caused by political or Dublin-based management decisions, Shannon has endured. The loss of its sole transatlantic status in the early 1990s, the impact of the EU/US Open Skies Agreement of 2007 and the loss of the Aer Lingus Shannon/Heathrow service in August of the same year, as well as Ryanair pulling the plug on a range of flights over passenger charges, have all presented serious challenges for Shannon.

With passenger numbers on the slide, there was extensive debate in the region and at national level as to whether or not Shannon would be better off from under the yoke of Dublin Airport Authority and try to rebuild.

The decision to make a clean break was another watershed moment in the history of Shannon and the first passengers through the newly autonomous airport arrived on the Aer Lingus EI-110 flight from JFK at 5.08am on January 1, 2013.

Under the dynamic leadership of CEO, Neil Pakey and chairman, Rose Hynes, Shannon Airport has turned the corner. Ryanair flights are back big time and new routes, including ones to the US, and additional flights have been added over the past two years and nine months.

The enthusiasm among everybody associated with Shannon Airport since its inception is still there in spades. Clare people feel a sense of ownership of Shannon. It is a symbol of prosperity in a county that might well have been bypassed but for its existence at an important juncture in Ireland’s emergence as a nation. Through the employment and business it has created, Shannon International Airport is probably County Clare’s greatest asset.

By Austin Hobbs, editor

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