More than a million fliers bypass €120m Cork Airport
Dublin, Shannon and Kery are growing but Cork's new terminal is losing business
Cork Airport has haemorrhaged over one million passengers in seven years despite spending €120m on a new terminal.
There are now major concerns for the long term viability of the airport if the proposed sale of Aer Lingus to IAG goes ahead. Cork - Ireland's second busiest airport - has seen its passenger numbers plummet from 3.25 million down to an estimated 2.1 million, a decline of 36pc.
Over the same period, it has lost carriers including Malev, EasyJet, Wizz, ThomsonFly, CentralWings, BMIBaby, Air Wales, British European and Loganair.
While both Shannon and Dublin posted impressive passenger growth figures last year on the back of Ireland's economic recovery, Cork suffered yet another decline.
It is now estimated that more than one million passenger journeys by Munster-based travellers bypass Cork Airport in favour of Dublin, Shannon and even Kerry.
Ryanair told the Irish Independent that they handled 500,000 Cork-based passengers from other Irish airports last year including Dublin, Shannon and Kerry.
A further 500,000 south Munster-based passengers are also opting for Dublin and Shannon services with Aer Lingus and other carriers due to greater route choices including transatlantic services.
Cork has Ryanair routes to five countries compared to Shannon's eight. Dublin has 23 different countries served by Ryanair. Even Kerry Airport has Ryanair services to four countries.
Cork Airport's new terminal
In many cases, price is a significant factor in persuading Cork passengers to travel to Shannon or Dublin.
Shannon are now running advertising campaigns on Cork radio stations, RedFm and 96FM.
The latest Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) figures show that while Dublin (+6.5pc) and Shannon (+18.7pc) both registered significant increases in passenger numbers in 2014, Cork suffered further losses (-3.8pc).
Shannon is now fast eroding Cork's 500,000-plus passenger lead as Ireland's second airport.
Lord Mayor Cllr Mary Shields (FF) warned that the fate of Cork Airport carries stark warnings for the potential impact on Ireland of any Aer Lingus sale.
"Any proposed takeover of the Government's stake in Aer Lingus must include guarantees to secure the future of Cork Airport and indeed the future of all of the country's national airports," she warned.
"It would be very naive to think IAG would protect Cork Airport whilst the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) presently neglects its status."
Cork's dependence on its busiest route - the Aer Lingus service to London Heathrow - is now critical.
Burdened with a €120m debt linked to its lavish new terminal which opened in 2006 and consigned to operate within the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) family, Cork has seen its southern rivals Shannon and Kerry benefit from new routes and growing passenger numbers.
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary dismissed Cork's new terminal as "a white elephant" even before it formally opened.
Its old terminal, which Mr O'Leary sought in vain to open as a dedicated Ryanair hub, now sits empty and idle.
The problem for Cork is the debt generated by the terminal.
That debt was the subject of a heated debate in April 2008 when the Cork Airport Authority (CAA) board agreed by a single vote to accept responsibility for its repayment.
At the time, it was presumed increasing passenger numbers would allow an independent airport make the debt repayments.
But Cork now realises it cannot hope for independent status like Shannon until the debt issue is resolved and passenger numbers recover.
Despite a 25-year campaign for a direct US service, Cork still has no long-haul routes.
Incredibly, Ryanair's 500,000 passenger figure equates to 61pc of the carrier's total Cork passenger business, with both Cork Chamber of Commerce and Cork Business Association warning that something now urgently needs to be done to halt the passenger decline.
Opposition Finance Spokesman Michael McGrath (FF), in whose South Central constituency Cork Airport is located, warned that the airport needed radical new supports and claimed that Shannon now held "unfair advantages."
"This decline in Cork Airport's figures simply cannot be tolerated - something has to be done," he said.
The Chamber of Commerce echoed that warning, with chief executive Conor Healy stressing that, alongside University College Cork (UCC), Cork Airport ranks as one of the primary engines for the entire economy of the south-west region.
A promotional photo for Cork Airport last year
But Cork Airport faces a 'Catch 22' scenario - its owner, Dublin Airport, has actually benefited at its expense with Munster-based passengers now increasingly opting for it thanks to better route choices, frequency and often price.
For instance, a recent UCC society's Scottish trip was organised with Ryanair via Dublin rather than Cork.
It is a similar story with religious pilgrimages from Cork dioceses which often opt for Dublin over the local facility due to charter price and availability.
Cork is able to offer special landing charge discounts for new routes - but both Dublin and Shannon wield greater muscle in terms of marketing supports provided.
Ryanair's marketing director, Kenny Jacobs, stressed that the airline was "very interested" in bringing new routes to Cork but only if landing charges were more competitive.
"Of course more flights and new routes can come. But there has to be a good deal for all airlines at Cork, not just Ryanair.
"The bottom line is that Cork needs to reduce its charges. It is a well run airport but if they want new routes and increased flights, they need to get their charges reduced."
But airport officials insisted that they are working very hard for new routes and extra business.
Securing a transatlantic route and reviving the old Dublin-Cork service are amongst the airport's top priorities.
Privately, however, there is concern that Cork cannot match the incentive packages on offer in either Shannon or Dublin to secure major route bundles from Ryanair, Aer Lingus or even EasyJet.
"Cork Airport cannot compete with zero-cost five-year deals from airports within 90 minutes' drive enabled by significant financial stimulus," one Cork transport lobbyist warned.
Shannon was allowed debt-free status when it went independent on December 31, 2012 and has since been able to financially out-muscle Cork for business.
Proof came when Ryanair opted to transfer some of its successful Polish flights from Cork to Shannon last year.
Cork suffered further pain when Aer Lingus axed its year-round Brussels route and reduced frequency on its Munich service.
This was despite the fact that Cork charges €8.60 per passenger after six years on new routes which is cheaper than Dublin at €10.50.
However, that does not take into account other supports for key route packages such as marketing, promotion and tourism campaigns.
An all-party group of Cork TDs is now seeking a meeting with Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe and the DAA.
Cork Airport currently has an average of 26 daily departures.
This rises to more than 50 during the peak summer months.
The busiest route is Cork-London Heathrow, which operates four departures daily.
It has a load factor of 90pc-plus and ranks as the most profitable route at the airport.
Next busiest is Ryanair's Cork-London Stansted service.
Cork currently boasts year-round scheduled services to the UK, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany.
Summer and winter services, as well as charters, expand that network to include destinations such as Portugal, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
This summer, Ryanair will operate services to five countries, most of which are seasonal routes.
At its peak in 2008, Cork boasted 3.25 million passengers and boasted over a dozen different airlines. That number has declined to an estimated 2.1 million passengers last year.
Cork Airport's scheduled services are now effectively based around three carriers, Aer Lingus, Ryanair and Aer Lingus Regional/Stobart Air.