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Uncertainty lingers over Aer Lingus at Shannon

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DESPITE sometimes frosty relations, Aer Lingus has long provided Shannon with links to some of the world’s most important airports, including JFK and Heathrow and the implications of its takeover by International Airlines Group (IAG), which was confirmed on Tuesday evening, are going to be watched closely.

There are differing views; some worry that being part of the group will lead to the airline pulling back from Shannon services in the long term, while others feel it can provide new opportunities for the Clare airport.

IAG issued a statement on Tuesday evening which said, “IAG has received confirmation of the valid acceptance of its offer for Aer Lingus in respect of all the Aer Lingus shares held by the Ryanair Group. Ryanair’s acceptance was a condition of the offer, which is now wholly unconditional as all the conditions have been satisfied.”

IAG chief executive Willie Walsh added, “We’d like to welcome Aer Lingus into IAG. It will remain an iconic Irish brand with its base and management team in Ireland but will now grow as part of a strong, profitable airline group. This means new routes and more jobs benefiting customers, employees and the Irish economy and tourism”.

Following its negotiations with the Irish Government regarding the State’s 25% stake in Aer Lingus, IAG said it would keep the Shannon-Heathrow links for the next seven years. In relation to transatlantic services, it says flights between Shannon and Boston and New York “are expected to be strengthened” as a result of the acquisition.

British Airways already stop over at Shannon to use the US Customs and Border Protection facilities there and IAG say they “will consider options to sustain and enhance the existing all-business British Airways twice-daily service via Shannon Airport, including by Aer Lingus codeshare and by accepting customers originating from Shannon”.

However the assurances are not being taken at face value by everyone, including Clare TD Michael McNamara.

No longer part of the Labour parliamentary party after he broke ranks and voted against the Government on the sale of Aer Lingus, Deputy McNamara said there is now a lot of uncertainty about the future of Aer Lingus at Shannon. “There’s a seven-year guarantee on the Heathrow flights but I’d have concerns as to whether or not that would be legally enforceable. There’s no guarantee on the transatlantic flights and that’s in the context of IAG talking about developing a transatlantic hub in Dublin, as a result of which there would clearly be a focus on centralising flights through that hub.”

When it was put to him that Shannon didn’t have any certainty about Aer Lingus’ future plans prior to the takeover either, he said, “There wasn’t, but there was a degree of control. There was a 25% [State] shareholding that isn’t there anymore. A 25% shareholding in what was a successful airline”.

The Scariff man added, “Aer Lingus wasn’t set up primarily to make money, although it did make money latterly. It was set up to ensure connectivity for Ireland and connectivity is as important now, if not more important, than when Aer Lingus was set up.”

Mr McNamara said he still hopes to run for Labour in the upcoming general election but added “that’s a matter for Labour in Clare to decide and ultimately for the Labour leadership”.

Clare Fianna Fáil TD and Transport spokesperson Timmy Dooley also opposed the sale. On Wednesday he said, “My principal concern is that, in the event of any downturn in aviation activity, which happens every seven or eight years, that a large group like IAG will always protect their core business. IAG’s core business is based around British Airways and is based around Heathrow and around the UK. Whilst consolidation, ie the buying up of airlines, is part of IAG’s strategy, it’s like all big multinational profit-driven companies, if the wind changes sell-off and diversification become a feature also.”

He noted there is no going back now, however and that the Mid-West needs to support the Aer Lingus services at Shannon. “Whilst I had great concerns and I still hold those, I’m a positive person and though things didn’t work out the way I felt they should, we’ve got to get behind it now and support the Aer Lingus brand out of Shannon.”

While Deputies Dooley and McNamara are concerned, Senator Tony Mulcahy, who had threatened to quit Fine Gael if the deal went through without some assurances on US flights, said he believes it is a good deal. “I think its an awful lot better than what was on the table in the first place,” he commented.

He said if North American-bound British Airways flights begin to pick up passengers at the Clare airport, it will be “massive” for the airport and the region.

By Owen Ryan

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