Wednesday 18 October 2017

Pilgrims' progress – how Knock airport plans to take on the world and win

Its existence is a miracle, but Ireland West Airport has big ideas

Cabin crew with Monsignor James Horan at Knock Airport for the first commercial Aer Lingus flights which took off on a pilgrimage to Rome.
Cabin crew with Monsignor James Horan at Knock Airport for the first commercial Aer Lingus flights which took off on a pilgrimage to Rome.
Joe Gilmore
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

IT'S hard to fathom now that someone would build an airport whose primary aim would be to lure pilgrims to a religious shrine. In fact, the notion of an international airport at Knock was understandably dismissed by most in the disaster zone that was Ireland's economy in the early '80s, as a completely hare-brained idea.

But Monsignor James Horan persevered with his plan to build an airport on what was described as a "foggy, boggy hill" and in 1986 it officially opened.

Today, managing director Joe Gilmore says between 10pc and 15pc of inbound passenger traffic to the airport at Knock – or Ireland West Airport, Knock, to give it its fuller moniker – say they visit the local shrine when they make a trip here. That's up to 10,000 people a year. These days, more pilgrims leave the airport destined for shines in other sunnier climes than come to Knock though.

"Every year between 10,000 and 20,000 outbound pilgrims travel to places like Fatima and Medjugorie," says Gilmore. "We don't get dedicated inbound charters for the shrine."

And in the more than quarter of a century since the airport opened, things have changed enormously. The economy has boomed and bombed, and the aviation industry has been utterly transformed.

Run as a trust, it seems a miracle in itself that Knock's airport ever managed to survive. But in 2012, it had its busiest year ever, catering for 685,000 passengers. This year, the number will be in and around the same. It serves 28 destinations around Europe.

It made a loss last year of €627,000 before government subvention, on turnover of €14m. But Gilmore – who has a degree in physics – has run the numbers and reckons the airport can eventually stand on its own feet without a financial crutch.

He and his management team have just submitted a study on the airport's future to the Government as part of the latter's plan, announced this week last year, to develop a national aviation policy. That plan is due to be unveiled by the Government next year.

"The report presents a couple of options to the Government on the future of regional airports, but in particular the options for this airport," according to Gilmore. "The process has confirmed and succeeded in convincing the Department of Transport that regional airports have an important role to play and that Knock has a critical role to play in terms of being an economic engine for the region."

"There's a clear justification for future investment," insists Gilmore, given the number of tourists the airport can attract, as well as the part he says it can play in aiding industry and commerce. The aim, adds Gilmore, is to double the annual number of passengers using the airport to 1.3 million by 2023. Over the next decade or so, it's likely Knock will need capital investment of between €40m and €50m, a chunk of which would have to be sourced from the Exchequer, but other groups and agencies could also conceivably contribute.

It seems like a big ask at a time when the country is slowly emerging from the mire, and would also come on top of €27m the then government gave the airport in 2007 to fund capital projects (including a new navigation system that finally made the airport less of a hostage to fortune to low cloud and fog).

"We want to play a major role for in-bound tourism as well as filling the gaps that currently exist for business travellers," explains Gilmore, who says the airport has made a "very strong case" for its future.

"Without a national aviation policy framework, regional airports in particular can't really operate properly. The one thing regional airports haven't had is a degree of certainty over a planning horizon. We need that to attract investment."

Gilmore says Knock isn't looking for something for nothing.

"We're not looking for handouts. Already the airport contributes about €130m a year to regional tourism through value add and Exchequer returns," he says. "We would be doubling that to close to €300m. The number of jobs supported directly and indirectly because of the airport would go from 900 to 2,000. This is an investment and not a handout."

One of the possible obstacles to securing government funding is new EU state aid rules that are due to come into force next year. MEP Pat Gallagher last month wrote to European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, expressing concerns about how the phasing out of state aid over 10 years could adversely impact Knock.

But Gilmore says the effect of the new state aid rules has already been factored into the airport's plan.

"We'd be very confident in the investment proposal and over 10 years we'll be able to achieve a self-sustainable position and be weaned off future requirements for funding."

A year ago this week, former Knock Airport chairman Liam Scollan became embroiled in a war of words with Transport Minister Leo Varadkar as the Government prepared to cut Shannon Airport loose from the Dublin Airport Authority. Shannon got €100m of debt written off. Scollan was apoplectic, claiming the debt write-off could amount to illegal state aid. He threatened to take the matter to Brussels.

The minister countered that if Knock wasn't happy about state supports, then it could stop taking them. The fuss eventually died down after Scollan resigned as chairman during the summer to pursue other interests.

Meanwhile, a core element of the new plan will be to restart transatlantic services from Knock and with a catchment area of around one million people, Gilmore thinks it's a runner.

In 2007, Scottish low-cost carrier Flyglobespan operated twice-weekly services from Knock to JFK and Boston (the flights originated in Glasgow, stopping off at Knock enroute). But those services were halted after a season run and the airline collapsed in 2009.

Gilmore, who joined Knock as CEO in 2009, says that the routes performed well numbers-wise and that it was Flyglobespan's own operational problems that led to them being canned.

"One of our ambitions here over the next few years is to get back into the US market," he says, adding 2015 or 2016 would be the aim for a reboot. Gilmore says the airport is in "active discussions" with carriers here and in the US.

"US carriers are confident about Ireland again. They're prepared to put on the additional capacity. That can only augur well for airports such as Knock," he says.

He concedes that the potential cannibalisation of existing US traffic at Shannon and even Dublin might be an issue for airlines if they fly into Knock, but Gilmore says that incremental passenger growth should be enough to help assuage any concerns.

"We're working hard on the research side on that. There will be some degree of cannibalisation of existing traffic, but the major upside will be incremental growth by the fact that they'll be able to provide more direct access to where people actually want to get to."

"It's a challenge, but we'd be looking at maybe two or three summer services a week to destinations such as New York and Boston," he said.

Knock, which employs 100 people, has been busy this year attracting new business to the UK and mainland Europe. Ryanair is boosting routes and frequencies, Flybe has launched additional capacity and services, while Germanwings, the low-cost offshoot of Lufthansa (which itself operates a seasonal service to Knock) is to launch flights next year between Knock and Cologne-Bonn.

Gilmore hopes to grow passenger traffic next year to over 700,000 and is even hopeful that 750,000 could be reached.

Unlike James Horan, he won't be doing it on a wing and a prayer.

JOE GILMORE IN BRIEF

Age: 49

Career: Former country manager with Irish Trade Board (now Enterprise Ireland). Previously a business development manager with Greenstar and

managing director of Volex Europe.

Education: Physics degree from DCU; MBA from NUIG.

Personal: Married with four children. Keen GAA follower (former senior player)

Irish Independent

Also in Business