“If we’re serious about our future as an internationally traded island nation, we simply have to retain critical air connectivity to all Irish airports, including Shannon. Connectivity is vital for the retention and growth of business on this island nation, and should not be determined by market forces.”
This was the view expressed by Helen Downes, CEO, Shannon Chamber and Dr Órlaith Borthwick, Interim CEO, Limerick Chamber when they presented to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications in Leinster House on Thursday, 29 January 2015, on behalf of the Chambers along the Atlantic coast – Ennis, Galway, Limerick and Shannon.
The collective Chambers represent a membership of 1,355 businesses and the 45,700 people directly employed in the region by these businesses.
Stating that the connections delivered by scheduled air services to/from Shannon, the Americas and Europe are critical parts of Ireland’s economic infrastructure, the Chamber representatives said:
“They enable mobile investment projects to locate in places like Ennis, Galway, Limerick and Shannon as they provide businesses with the certainty needed to transport people, products and services to all parts of the world and, they provide tourists with easier and frequent access to the network of world-class tourist products available along the length and breadth of Ireland’s Western regions.”
Summarising the Chambers’ overall views on the potential sale of Aer Lingus, Ms Downes and Dr Borthwick stated:
“Our focus is less about the ownership and more about ensuring that that 23 slot pair connecting London Heathrow and Irish airports are retained for connectivity to each airport, and not just Dublin. This must be enshrined in government policy regardless of ownership and must be central to (a) the decision making process and (b) any deal that may subsequently follow with IAG or any other carrier. Cast iron guarantees must be put in place to ensure that the slots at Heathrow are maintained for access from Irish airports, including major regional airports.
“This guarantee must be long-term. The minimum of the 3 slots for Shannon must be retained at any cost, and should Competition authorities consider that the combined total of slots occupied by IAG and Aer Lingus is anti-competitive, then any displacement of Dublin slots should be allocated to the other airports in Ireland, thus facilitating delivery of a more balanced Irish economy and resulting at least the same number of slots for Ireland Inc.
“The potential loss of the London Heathrow slots would be at odds with the Government’s plans to correct regional imbalance and will add a hollow ring to Minister Richard Bruton’s concerns that Ireland will ‘pay a heavy economic social cost in years to come if regional imbalances are not addressed’.
“Airports, including Shannon, play a vital role in the economic and social development of their regions acting as a gateway and an engine of growth. Why place so much emphasis on developing a National Aviation Policy and a National Tourism Policy for Ireland on the one hand, and cutting connectivity on the other?
“Any short-term gain from the sale has the potential to do much more long-term detrimental damage to the country’s economic well-being. The financial gain of circa €320m, in the context of a €67bn bailout, does not warrant the potential detrimental impact the loss of connectivity will have.”
Commenting on the impact on the economy generally, they added: “The State has a duty to act strategically in the interests of its citizens’, employers’ and investors’ long-term requirements, and carefully take into account the wider impact of the sale of Aer Lingus on our economy and connectivity. The loss of connectivity to London Heathrow would have almost immediate and dire consequences for business across the country.
“Irish business travellers strongly depend on the hub at Heathrow and require interlining services to access third locations. Ireland cannot afford to lose this critical link to global hub connectivity via a potential sale of Aer Lingus and its associated LHR slots.
“Aer Lingus also operates long-haul routes to NY, Washington, Boston and San Francisco. It is uncertain whether these direct transatlantic connections from Ireland would remain available to Irish users following a potential sale. This is of particular importance given the technology investment into Ireland from West Coast headquartered FDI companies.
“The frequency of this hub connectivity and direct access to North America is a unique selling point which has successfully attracted inward investment to Ireland. Any potential reduction in this connectivity will have a detrimental impact, not only on foreign-owned firms who operate here but on our indigenous firms as they seek to expand and internationalise into new markets.”
In their summation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications, Ms Downes and Dr Borthwick said: “The 1,355 Chamber member companies, along Ireland’s west coast, would be greatly challenged by the loss of a ‘valuable route’ such as London Heathrow, by any loss of connectivity from this critical hub, and by any loss of linkage to US destinations, caused by a potential sale of Aer Lingus. We’re an island nation and our businesses need to connect easily and speedily with their customers and suppliers.”