Uneven! The GAA has the good sense to separate the stronger hurling teams from the weaker ones. Not so in Aviation. If we look at the All-Ireland flight services to London in GAA scoring terms and we count each flight to Heathrow, being a key European Hub, as a goal and each flight to the other London airports i.e. Stansted, Luton, Gatwick and London City, as points, then look at the following score in the All-Ireland aviation final of East versus West.
East (NI and Dublin) 31 - 58
West of Ireland (South West, Mid-West, West and North West) 5 - 16
The poor performance of the entire West of Ireland hides the outrageously poor performance of the West and North West. In the earlier round of the championship, we might say the All-Ireland Semi-final, the Mid-West and South West combined inflicted the most crushing defeat ever witnessed on the West and North West
Mid West and South West 5 -13
West and North West 0 - 3
If the West and North West wanted an easier game there would be no point heading up to play Northern Ireland. The score there is:
Northern Ireland 11 - 26
West and North West 0 - 3
In such an overwhelming show of force, you wonder how the West and North West managed to score at all! Things would have been more uneven prior to the Aer Lingus decision to discontinue the Shannon – Heathrow service; the score then would have been:
Mid-West & South West 9 -13
West and North West 0 -3.
That’s 40 points to 3 points!!
I have said it before and I will say it again; no other facet of our infrastructure landscape shows up more starkly the massive imbalances between regions than the field of aviation.
Whilst you might think that, again in GAA terms, these massive defeats are due to the particular teams having larger populations to draw on, the situation is that our main regional airports have similar catchment populations of circ. 1 million each and therefore these football scores reflect the real aviation access imbalance for this region.
Let me demonstrate this by showing the capacity of seats provided by airlines from each region to London. There is one quarter (0.25) of a seat per head of population in the West and North West; in Northern Ireland the capacity is 1.1 seats per head of population; in Leinster there is 1.3 seats per head of population; and in the south West and Mid-West after the withdrawal of the Heathrow flights from Shannon it is 1.5 seats - six times the capacity of the West and North West.
Before I might address what we do about this, let me make a few points of fact about air services to London and some of the issues I have within the current debate on air transport.
The first point, therefore, is that however bleak the picture is for the South and West, the picture pales by comparison with the West and North West. Efforts to secure capacity for the West of Ireland need to deal with the entire West of Ireland and the airports like Ireland West Airport Knock which have the capacity and the population to facilitate such capacity.
Secondly, the loss of the Heathrow flights reflects the cold reality of commercial competition in the airline business. Shannon Airport made a free market decision when it invited Ryanair to form a base there, a base which has increased the level of capacity enormously in that region and has been heralded justifiably as a good decision. Soon afterwards, easyJet, Europe’s second largest low cost airline exited Shannon and the West of Ireland after just one year there. Aer Lingus is yet another airline in a list of ones who have reduced services or exited from the West, and Shannon Airport in particular, in recent years. The Aer Lingus share of Shannon-London passengers in 2004 was 53%; by 2006 that had dropped to 38%.
My impression is that Aer Lingus Shannon-Heathrow flights were around half full on average over the year in 2006. For the winter months it would have been less full than that. By contrast, load factors on the same service from Cork and with more frequencies appeared to be around 80%. Against these realities Aer Lingus, like easyJet before it, has to make a commercial decision.
Then you wonder should Aer Lingus be supported and asked to re-open flights whose commercial future is waning. The new EU Guidelines make it much less possible for public authorities to subsidise airline routes at the expense of other competing routes. London Heathrow, while regarded as the key London airport, under the EU, it is simply the same as the other London Airports. Section 51 of the EU Guidelines state:
“If a private airport gives funding which in fact is no more than a redistribution of public resources given to it for this purpose by a public body, these subsidies must be considered as State Aid if the decision to redistribute public resources is taken by the public authorities.” State Aids to airlines are prohibited under the new EU guidelines unless there are exceptional circumstances. Neither can incentives to airlines to maintain routes be given indefinitely.
The resolution to the Shannon Heathrow issue is not therefore to ask Aer Lingus to go back on its decision; neither should it be a Mid-West Region focused resolution. I have written last week that I see three challenges facing aviation in the West of Ireland. There is a bigger crisis here, the loss of connection to key hubs, to European destinations that provide inbound tourism and the transatlantic destinations.
We have heard plenty of debate around the loss of the Heathrow hub from Shannon Airport. However, let us bring this down to some facts in order first of all to establish the scale of the problem. My information is that 23% of all passengers from Shannon to Heathrow were onward bound and therefore using the Heathrow hub facility. This equates with 58,266 passengers. In aviation statistics this equates with actually half that number of people, being 29,133. A sheer guess here is that half that number again flies out of Shannon (around 15,000) and the same number fly in from abroad. My understanding is that four flights a day to London Heathrow, giving a capacity of 253,000 seats for 58,000 connecting passengers, suggests over supply for that Mid-West region, especially in the context where all the other point-to-point passengers have low cost choices to neighbouring London airports with increasingly attractive connectivity into London. The reality is that there needs to be a greater spread throughout the entire West of Ireland airports if we are to fill aircraft bound for a hub airport and maximise Heathrow and/or hub services from the West of Ireland.
This is more an airline issue than an airport issue. It is about having sufficient airlines in the West of Ireland who will inter-line and do seamless onward flights on the one ticket. The wider question is “how do we attract such airlines?” many of whom are reluctant to take a punt on coming into a relatively small and low-cost dominated market.
Aviation issues facing the West of Ireland are not just confined to Heathrow flights. The experience at regional airports like Cork, Shannon and Ireland West Knock is that the outbound holiday destinations are far easier to sustain than inbound holiday ones. Airports have a huge impact on regional development through business and tourism, but in the West of Ireland the danger is that that positive impact could be on other locations in Europe not on locations here in the West of Ireland.
There is a third issue facing the regional aviation. Already we see that with Open Skies the large established airlines will exit smaller regional airports and opt for the bigger hubs in Europe. We in Ireland West Airport Knock have successfully launched our transatlantic services which have been flying near full from here all summer. We have shown that without government intervention it is possible to get into this market by partnering with European based low cost carriers, like flyglobespan but again the challenge is to sustain all year round services, something which most airlines demand if their investment is to be profitable.
The entire West of Ireland faces one common challenge here and that challenge is to sustain all year round services to key hubs that give world wide connectivity; we need services that attract more inbound rather than more outbound traffic and we need to ensure a quota of transatlantic services. Furthermore, these issues need to be urgently broadened out beyond the Mid-West region. This is not just a Mid-West problem but neither is the solution to be found only in the Mid-West.
I would like to think however, that the solution could be inspired by the Mid-West example, the example set decades ago by the formation of the regional development body – Shannon Development; the example set by the people of the Mid-West Region who have been seen to fight with fury for their region. I look to representatives all over the entire West of Ireland from Cork to Donegal and ask for reflection, vision and action in support of sound aviation strategy for all international airports on the West side of this island.