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Vital link to Heathrow remains vulnerable

Owen Ryan on the importance of the slots

THE preservation of Shannon’s Heathrow slots is of fundamental importance to much of the region’s economy, and ensuring connectivity continues beyond next September should be a priority for the region’s politicians.
More than 15 years ago – well before the precariousness of the slots really came into focus after they were transferred to Belfast – Shannon Town Council had called for them to be ring fenced for the Clare airport.
However, that did not happen, still has not happened, and it is very possible that next autumn they could be lost once more.
In 2007 Aer Lingus hoped to bury news of its decision to transfer four Heathrow slots from Shannon to Belfast, by leaking the information on the August Bank Holiday weekend.
That didn’t work at all though, and even though the economy was booming at the time, a major campaign began, encompassing politicians, tourism industry figures, some leading multinational companies and an angry public.
While the transfer did go ahead, at the end of 2008 Aer Lingus opted to reverse the earlier decision and to resume services from Shannon.
This was undoubtedly positive for Clare, but a fundamental problem was unaltered, as there was still no way of ensuring the services could be guaranteed in the long term, with Aer Lingus free to transfer them any time it felt it was in the airline’s interests.
When IAG sought to take over Aer Lingus in 2015, the future of Shannon was one complication it faced in securing the State’s agreement to sell the 25% of the airline it retained. However, concessions were offered to seal the deal, including a seven-year Shannon-Heathrow guarantee. 
While this was welcome, and actually gave a degree of certainty that hadn’t been there when the State were minority shareholders, it will expire next year. IAG certainly won’t be worried about tourism in West Clare or people working in multinationals in Shannon or Limerick when it decides on the slots’ future.
While there is certainly a Shannon-Heathrow market, global aviation is certainly going to be very competitive as it recovers from Covid, and one would have to hope that Shannon can offer enough to IAG to make sure the slots are kept there.
However the problem will remain. The Shannon-Heathrow link is absolutely crucial to the west of Ireland, comparable to a major piece of infrastructure, but there is no way it can be guaranteed in the long-term since the privatisation of Aer Lingus. 
Speaking in the Dáil on the future of the Heathrow link, Minister Eamon Ryan said, “Subject to certain conditions being met at Irish airports, Aer Lingus’s connectivity commitments will remain in effect until 1 September 2022. There is no existing provision to further extend these commitments, and the operation of particular routes after this point will be commercial matter for the airline. Financial supports have been made available to Shannon Airport to support the recovery of routes in light of Covid-19 disruption.”
Despite the importance of Heathrow connectivity, Minister Ryan appears to have little interest in coming up with a solution to the lack of long term certainty around it.  This is typical of the approach to aviation by successive governments, but it is potentially serious for Clare, and surely some long term means of guaranteeing connectivity in the long term should be pursued.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.
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