Once again, the future of Shannon Airport is back on the agenda in a very serious way. In a way, it has never really been far from the minds of the people of the Mid-West for well over a decade now.
At the moment, however, the situation appears extremely grim. Michael O’Leary and Ryanair have the airport on its knees. He wants lower landing charges and, unfortunately for the airport and the people of the region, the Shannon Airport Authority has allowed itself to be manoeuvred into a position where they are almost powerless to resist. The previous deal cut between the airport and the airline runs out in April so time is on the side of O’Leary. The potential for ruin, from the airports point of view, is very real if a fresh deal is not reached.
The old saying teaches us the dangers of putting all our eggs in one basket but it is advice that has clearly been ignored by the SAA. The airport is now almost entirely dependent on the budget carrier and is in no position to lose its business. Reported numbers indicate that a massive 60% of all traffic through the airport is carried by Ryanair.
If the threatened action goes ahead, it could see staffing levels reduced by between 100 and 150, depending on who you speak to.
The knock-on effects in the local economy would be very significant if this were to come about.
Aside from the negative effect on the economy of the area, the effect on the actual lives of the people of Clare and surrounding counties if the number of flights from Shannon is slashed will be massive.
It also runs counter to all good intuition regarding decentralisation. If our link to the wider world is cut off we will have to travel to the already over-congested hubs at Dublin and Cork to get anywhere.
Anyone who has ever travelled through Dublin Airport will not want to repeat the experience unless they are possessed of a truly outrageous masochistic streak and as for Cork, well, the car-parking charges alone should be enough to put people off.
I must admit here that I have intense personal interest in this issue for one very purely selfish reason, the fact that my wife and I live in Scotland. At the moment, we can catch a bus in Edinburgh city centre which drops us at the door of the airport in 25 minutes.
The flight to Shannon takes under an hour and within another 20 minutes we are in Quin.
If, on the other hand, we want to visit my wife’s family in Yorkshire, we must spend between five and six hours, depending on traffic, driving there. I am by no means the only person from the Mid-West Region in this situation.
Unfortunately, my quality of life and that of all those like me do not appear on Ryanair’s balance sheet and so will play no role in the forthcoming fall of the guillotine. While writing this article, I logged on to the Ryanair website and attempted to book flights home for next May. No matter what combination of dates I entered, there were no flights available. Every little image of a plane, denoting an available flight, was crossed by a large red X. An ominous sign but possibly one we will have to start getting used to.
One question that arises again and again in this debate is why this situation was not foreseen and dealt with sooner. Is it simply the case that Ryanair has played a canny game and manoeuvred the airport authority into a tight position squarely between a rock and a hard place?
Or was this avoidable somehow? It may be that these questions are now irrelevant and we must just move on and hope the situation will be salvaged but certainly, I personally find I am continuously nagged by them.
Another question which nags relentlessly is the role of Dublin in the downfall of Shannon. For some time now it has been clear that Shannon is viewed as the poor relation in the trio of major airports in the country.
Dublin would happily see the airport downsized to the point of closure or at the very least insignificance, in my opinion. I am not alone in this but yet the situation continues, seemingly unchecked.
Personal flights aside, the issue of business connectivity must be considered. It is vital for the economy of the Mid-West that flights continue to be available to those who need them. If they are not, the region will suffer. Tourism will be hit if the option of flying to Shannon is not there for those who wish to visit the region.
This will have the obvious negative impact from a spending point of view but there is another side to the issue which is less discussed and that is the impression visitors will have of the country if they just fly into Dublin and spend their time there. The reputation of the capital as an expensive destination has spread far and wide in the world and puts many people off.
To visit Dublin and say you have visited Ireland leaves a person with a very skewed view of the nation. “West is best” is what I tell all who will listen but now it seems West will not be an option in the coming months and years.
It is difficult to see how this crisis will be resolved. Shannon Airport and, by proxy, the people of the Mid-West, find themselves at the mercy of one of the most unscrupulous companies in business of any kind in the world.
A positive outcome would seem to be a dim and distant dream at the moment. All we can do is hope.