Ireland West Airport Knock’s MD, Liam Scollan comments on the discussion of the recent decision by Aer Lingus to withdraw its London Heathrow services from Shannon Airport.
Ireland West Airport Knock welcomes the good news for Belfast particularly within the context of the Northern Ireland peace process and the opportunities it creates for development in that region and on the total island of Ireland. It is wonderful to envisage that the resurgence of Northern Ireland’s economy will provide an entire fresh impetus to the country as a whole.
However, we regard the withdrawal from Shannon of services to a key aviation hub as symptomatic of a wider challenge to development in the entire West of Ireland and of a much stronger pull to the East of Ireland created by the rapidly emerging Belfast - Dublin corridor. The threat will be most keenly felt in the Mid-West but not to the same extent in the North West and West of Ireland as it has never had the benefit of such connections in the first instance.
While we fully acknowledge the need for the Mid-West Region to do its utmost to overcome this setback, the considered response to this threat must be one that deals with the issues facing the entire West of Ireland from Cork to Donegal. The solution for the Cork region does not lie in the air services from the Mid-West Region and neither does the true solution for the West and North West lie in the Mid-West Region or indeed in Dublin or Belfast. We need, instead, to be clear firstly on what type of air services we really need and for what purposes; we need to take an all West of Ireland view and we need the organisations in place to make sure the West and North West are not further disadvantaged from all the other regions in Ireland by the latest trends in commercial aviation.
For regional air access to truly benefit regional development in Ireland, three types of services are essentially required:
• Short haul, low cost, point to point services to the UK and Europe, and in the case of Europe, the key services should be to destinations that attract inbound tourism and economic development to our region.
• Services to key hubs such as London Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle that deliver onward and worldwide connectivity particularly for business; and finally
• Long haul direct transatlantic services.
Apart form short haul services to the UK, the entire West of Ireland is experiencing some degree of market failure in all of the other types of services and in particular in services to the key hubs. For instance, in addition to the loss of the Heathrow route, services bringing inbound tourists from countries like Germany and France are facing increasing competition from other airports worldwide for these routes. The loss of connection to a key European hub or airport such as Heathrow is therefore not a surprising phenomenon for the West of Ireland. It is a result of the fact that Dublin and Belfast will inevitably be more attractive for airlines because they can guarantee all year round demand and a very strong business class travel need.
One region and one airport alone cannot provide the full solution. We have three airports: Cork, Shannon and Ireland West Knock, each capable of facilitating all three types of international services to short haul, to hubs and to transatlantic destinations and each therefore capable of delivering vital connectivity for its own region. This is not to diminish the role of the smaller regional airports which also perform a valuable economic development function.
What is needed is the following:-
The West of Ireland needs intervention from Government coupled with a partnership approach with the West’s Regional Airports to stimulate greater levels of services to European destinations that bring inbound tourists and economic activity through transatlantic services and to hubs that provide global connectivity. This should be done in a manner that, at the very least, embraces key airports over all of the West of Ireland because only then will it benefit all of the West of Ireland. Regional and Local Authorities, as well as key stakeholders in the West, must surely have a key role to play here.
The development of air route services at national level needs to be treated with the same level of co-ordination as roads and other transport services. Unlike in the case of roads, rail and other transport provision, there is no national body or co-ordinated policy approach to air services provisions and development outside of safety and security matters. There is now an urgent requirement to put such co-ordinated thinking in place, to respond in a balanced way to ensure provision for the entire island of Ireland and not just part of it, and to truly capitalise on the ability of air services to deliver balanced regional development rather than its opposite.
The last thing we need is a knee jerk, badly thought through reaction to the Aer Lingus decision. Everyone agrees that balanced regional development is a major priority; there is common consensus that air services are essential for regional development and we in our regions support our airports. Then is it not imperative that we make more informed use of our Regional Airports to deliver an entire West of Ireland strategy to help our west regions balance the juggernaut force that is the Belfast-Dublin East of Ireland corridor?