Continental Airlines has put it up to Aer Lingus by announcing stepped-up summer flights on the Shannon-New York run in advance of next week’s unveiling of Aer Lingus services.
Next Tuesday, Aer Lingus is due to detail its forward strategy plans to major shareholders arising out of the €197 million cost-cutting drive. The plan is labelled as a “Greenfield Project” by management and the “Aer Lingus Snake” by unions, who have concluded negotiations on the survival programme.
Where and how the airline intends to operate in 2010 is expected to be announced but the signals on Shannon intentions are conflicting.
Since August last year, Aer Lingus has had its Shannon-JFK New York service “under review” and in that time has heard warnings from Shannon Airport observers that the Irish airline is losing ground to Continental, which pits its flights to its key US hub at Newark as head-to-head competition with Aer Lingus.
Over several months in the second half of last year, Newmarket-on-Fergus Fianna Fáil councillor Pat McMahon repeatedly relayed airline staff fears that ground was being lost to Continental. Clare Fine Gael Deputy Pat Breen delivered a similar message directly to senior Aer Lingus management during a November hearing by the Joint Oireachtas Transport Committee.
From the Aer Lingus representatives, the committee heard an outline of what appeared to be a major change of heart by the airline on operations at Shannon. There was news of “deep discussions” with Shannon for Aer Lingus to take on some of the routes to be abandoned by Ryanair at the end of March.
Aer Lingus indicated its willingness to look at a smaller aircraft, such as that operated by Continental during the loss-making low-season service to New York. Shannon Airport director Martin Moroney, at the December meeting of the Mid West Regional Authority, cautiously corroborated that Aer Lingus was taking a new line with Shannon.
But a matter of weeks later, new Aer Lingus chief executive Christoph Mueller came to Shannon and rowed back on the change of aircraft on the New York route; distanced the airline from taking up the advantages of Shannon’s US pre-inspection station and was made no commitments on new east-bound services from Shannon.
While Aer Lingus staff in Shannon are in the dark about the level of services to be operated this year, there is no secrecy about the latest initiatives from Cork.
This week, the airline announced that it would open up twice-daily flights from Cork to London Gatwick from mid-March. These are being added to the four times a day Cork flights connecting to London Heathrow. Rubbing salt into the wound for Shannon is that Shannon comes under the wing of Aer Lingus management in Cork.
In its 2010 season pre-emptive strike, Continental has announced the addition of a four times a week service which, when it comes into operation at the end of May, will be added to its daily Shannon-Newark service.
In making the announcement, Continental’s senior director for Ireland and the UK, Bob Schumacher, said the expansion to 11 flights a week in the high season re-affirms the airline’s commitment to Shannon, where it has been ever-present since 1998.
Even Aer Lingus has acknowledged that Continental has an advantage in catering to business flyers because of its earlier Shannon departure and connection into the Newark hub that has over 150 onward connections within the US and the same number of overseas destinations.
The Continental announcement is the only speck of light so far on what is an even darker horizon for tourism than the past two years of decline.
In a preview of 2010 prospects from Fáilte Ireland, the tourism authority is forecasting that despite “trade expectations of recovery but little proof”, traffic from North America will be down this year.
That compares with a predicted lift in European business, a standstill in UK activity and a major promotional push to plug the gaps with home holidays.
While the Fáilte Ireland forecast was issued before the Continental announcement of beefed up flights at Shannon, tourism authority research is showing that capacity on US flights to Ireland into Dublin, which now has a two-thirds share of transatlantic passengers, will fall back below 2005 levels in the coming year.
New Continental service welcomed
Continental Airlines is to increase its presence at Shannon Airport this summer by operating four additional services to Newark Liberty International Airport in New York, bringing its weekly schedule to 11 flights per week.
The airline currently operates a daily
year-round service to its hub in Newark, which provides extensive connectivity throughout the US. The additional services, commencing on May 28 through to September 8, will operate on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, with a departure time of 1.15pm.
All Continental Airlines services will use the full US pre-clearance facility, ensuring speedy processing on arrival in the US and the announcement comes at a time when Aer Lingus has its Shannon-JFK New York service under review.
Shannon Airport director Martin Moroney described Continental’s move as a significant boost for Shannon Airport. “We are delighted to have this additional capacity in the transatlantic market this summer.”
“In this challenging business environment Continental Airlines’ decision shows the continued appeal of Shannon and the West of Ireland for doing business,” he said.
Mr Moroney pointed out that Continental Airlines is a strong performer at Shannon since it started services in 1998 and it has successfully built a year-round customer base in the West of Ireland in the business and leisure sectors.
“This announcement is proof that Continental Airlines see further opportunities for growth at Shannon and we look forward to working closely with them on delivering those extra passengers,” he added.
Continental’s senior director for Ireland and the UK, Bob Schumacher, said, “We are delighted to provide these additional flights from Shannon, which continues to be a popular departure point for our Irish customers as well as a favoured destination for travellers from the US. The additional service is further evidence of Continental’s ongoing commitment to the Shannon region and its business community.”
The new second service, CO67, will depart from Shannon at 1:15pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, arriving at New York/Newark at 3:30pm the same day. The return flight, CO66, will depart New York/Newark at 10pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, arriving in Shannon at 9:20am the following day.
Like the existing daily service, the additional flights will be operated by Boeing 757-200 aircraft, with 175 seats – 16 in business-, first and 159 in economy class.