SHANNON Airport is facing massive problems this week, with Aer Lingus considering moving its US services away from the Clare airport and Ryanair warning staff it may close its Shannon base for the winter.
At the moment Shannon’s only real passenger business is with Ryanair, while the loss of the Aer Lingus transatlantic business going forward would be a crippling blow for Clare tourism, as well as being very detrimental to the prospects of retaining and developing US investment in the west of Ireland.
Speaking to The Clare Champion on Wednesday, Shannon Group CEO Mary Considine said it is very important that the Government finally adjusts the restrictions on travel. “We are looking at the worst year in history for aviation, not just here in Shannon and nationally, but globally. Ryanair and Aer Lingus are really important customers to Shannon and I think they have stated very clearly the difficulty in restoring services or really kick starting aviation with the current restrictions in place.
“We know that the restrictions are in place for very valid public health reasons, but we would be hopeful that the Covid roadmap to come out on Monday would have measures to include aviation and to look at the reopening of aviation.”
Ms Considine was appointed to the role last autumn, and much of her first year has been spent dealing with the worst crisis in the airport’s history.
The fact that Ireland requires two weeks of quarantining on arrival into the country is a huge deterrent to travel, and Ms Considine feels Ireland’s stance is quite exceptional. “I think we’re an outlier, if you look across Europe Ireland is very much an outlier at this point.”
She feels the poorer performance of aviation here reflects the approach that has been taken. “If you look at European traffic, it got back up to 47% of normal operations towards the end of August, where Ireland is still under 20% of normal activity. We’re obviously an island nation as well so we’re hugely dependent on aviation and air services. I think that’s why the road map coming out on Monday is crucial, that it has a pathway for aviation included in it.”
Ms Considine said that the Group speak to Ryanair every week, and the low cost airline is very strong on having some of the restrictions eased, while she said the Aer Lingus routes between Shannon and America are absolutely crucial for the west of Ireland. “Aer Lingus are a really important customer to Shannon and the routes they provide are so important, not only for Shannon, but the entire western seaboard. So many businesses are reliant on those services. Like Ryanair, we have been in constant contact with Aer Lingus right since the onset of the pandemic. “Late last year we were announcing 20% capacity growth with Aer Lingus for 2020, new services coming on-line, and we were expecting 16% growth in our transatlantic market this year. We were in line for that at the end of February, Covid obviously turned the world upside down.
“What’s important is that there is a very strong market there, and those routes are critical for this region. They’re critical for the country, critical for balanced regional development. If you go back to the Aviation Task Force, and the stimulus measures that were called for by the Task Force- Ryanair, Aer Lingus, ourselves, we were all part of that- and we all agreed the measures that are required to kick-start the recovery and its urgent the Government seriously look at implementing those.”
Encouragingly, she feels that Aer Lingus would very much like to get the routes from Shannon going again. “I don’t want to speak for Aer Lingus and they will make their own commercial decisions, but in all our dialogue with them, they are keen to get back on Heathrow and back on the transatlantic, but while the current restrictions are in place, they won’t be able to, so it’s really important there is a clear roadmap and measures in place for the safe reopening of aviation.”
If the Government does take the measures required, she feels a Shannon-Heathrow service could be back in place well before Christmas.
While getting the transatlantic services up and running again will take longer there are reasons for optimism and she recognises just how vital they are. “It (aviation) will be one of the last industries to come back, we’re looking to 2024, so therefore there will be supports required by airlines to carry them through the recovery period. But there is an established market there. This region has over 40% of US FDI, business need this connectivity.
“Tourism operators need this connectivity, it’s absolutely crucial. There’s a very strong market there, Aer Lingus know that market is there, but while those current restrictions remain those services won’t come back.”
Earlier this year Delta and United announced that they wouldn’t be back at Shannon even in 2021, but Ms Considine feels they may return at a future date. In the meantime, keeping the Aer Lingus services is crucial. “Delta are quite confident that they will be back in Shannon, the route works for them, but because of the measures and the huge impact of Covid they don’t see themselves coming back until 2022. United similarly, they have not closed the door on Shannon, they have closed their base in Shannon, but again that route (to Newark) is viable, it was a very good route for them. It wasn’t a decision in relation to Shannon.
“We believe that with the right measures and with market confidence coming back, that we will see those services back in Shannon in 22/23. But it is absolutely critical that we see a restoration of Aer Lingus US services next year out of Shannon. That’s where we’re really calling on the Government to step up the implementation of the Task Force recommendations.”
While unions and some politicians have criticised the terms of a voluntary severance package offered to airport workers, Ms Considine said there has been a strong level of interest in it. She also praised workers who have endured significant cuts due to Covid-19. “This is a very difficult time for employees, it’s very difficult for businesses all over Ireland, aviation is probably one of the most impacted sectors. It is very tough for people, they’ve taken pain since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve had to implement measures to reduce our payroll cost to enable us to trade through this period.
“To be fair to staff they have worked with us, we have on-going dialogue with our staff and the unions and it’s always difficult when you’re implementing cost reduction measures. It’s always going to be challenging, but we’re in a process and we’re working through it.” While Shannon has had plenty of problems over the years, this is the biggest crisis it has ever faced, with expectations of recovery in 2020 replaced by a battle for survival. Ms Considine said that everything possible will be done to maintain Shannon and give it the best possible chance of re-establishing itself. “Our plan is very focused on surviving this, very focused on what is needed to recover and rebuild. We’re working hard on that and we have to be confident we will come through this. We are resilient, we’ve gone through very severe times in the past, nothing of this scale, but we have to dig deep, make some difficult calls, but they’re all with recovery in mind. We will do everything in our power to get through this.”