Wing and a prayer: can airports rise above storm?
Knock Airport needs €40m to protect its future and Cork Airport has seen passenger numbers nosedive by a third. Graham Clifford reports
They sit waiting patiently for their son to return from across the water.
"He's been over there for two years now, we miss him terribly," explains Eddie McNamara from Galway City. Patrick (25) works in construction in Reading and left home in search of a job.
The arrivals screen at Ireland West Airport, just outside the village of Knock, shows his Ryanair flight has touched down under the afternoon sun. Patrick's parents excitedly move towards the arrivals gate. And then within minutes, the McNamaras embrace before heading south and home.
Before leaving, his mother Joan tells me: "We'd be lost without Knock Airport. It's a godsend. Our little airport in Galway closed down a few years ago and without Knock we'd have to drive to Dublin or down to Shannon to collect Patrick. I have a bad back and driving long distances causes me discomfort. It's still 90km from door to door, but I can manage that."
But the long-term future of Ireland West Airport rests on a €40m state bailout.
When contacted about how that huge level of funding could be acquired this week, a spokesman for Ireland West Airport said that its managing director, Joe Gilmore, was unavailable for comment.
"As the airport is currently going through an investment process with the seven local authorities and Government, we don't wish to make any comment whilst this process is ongoing," he said.
A report on the airport's future carried out by Deloitte found that €35m is required to upgrade facilities.
Seven local authorities have agreed to purchase a 17.5pc stake in the 30-year-old airport, at a cost of €7.2m, with an additional €32m requested from the Department of Transport.
It is claimed the funding will be used to secure the future of the airport which had more than 700,000 passengers last year.
On the quiet streets of Knock village this week, locals applauded county councils for their vision in agreeing to acquire the stake holdings, but believe successive governments need to do much more to protect the route into the west.
"Sure, we're constantly forgotten about," said Brendan McGrath who owns a religious souvenirs stall across the road from the Knock Shrine.
"Every year, when they put out these lists of the most visited places in Ireland, they ignore us - we get 1.6 million visitors a year, yet we don't make these lists, it's madness," says Brendan.
And he believes those in positions of power must do more to make sure Ireland West Airport is protected well into the future.
"It's a vital lifeline for people in the west of Ireland. We need our politicians to remember that there's plenty of life outside the capital," he says.
Thelma and Michael Morley run a café in the village and say the airport has a major impact on both business and the local community.
"I've a brother living in Manchester and I pop over to visit him regularly and he comes home often with his family. Then Michael goes over to watch football matches a couple of times a year. And we often get people coming in here for breakfast after arriving on an early flight into Knock," says Thelma.
If Knock Airport's plight is precarious, it pales in levels of enormity when compared to the situation facing Cork Airport.
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… and all this at a time when passenger numbers at Shannon, Knock and Dublin are heading in the opposite direction. Debts of around €120m, associated with the construction of its new terminal building, means the airport is essentially operating on borrowed time. Unless it can get a handle on that debt, the long-term sustainability of Cork Airport is in serious jeopardy.
In recent weeks Aer Lingus confirmed it is to reduce the frequency of two scheduled flights from Cork to Glasgow and to Newcastle in June. It's the latest blow to the local area.
When Shannon Airport gained independence from the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA), it secured an estimated €38m annual rent income from nearby industrial land.
Cork lost some 120,000 passengers to Shannon with Ryanair moving several services in the last 12 months and there seems to be little commitment from the Government to step in. In going it alone, Shannon had €100m in debts written off.
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.
Breaking ranks with her party colleagues, Áine Collins, Fine Gael TD for Cork North West, has pleaded for Government intervention.
"The debt is strangling the airport and preventing Cork from competing on a like-for-like footing with the likes of Shannon Airport," she said. "We are haemorrhaging routes and flights as it is too expensive for airlines to consider Cork as a viable route, even though the airport can offer airlines access to over 1.2 million people in the Munster region."
A recent study, carried out by InterVISTAS Consulting, found that over 10,700 jobs are supported by Cork Airport and that it contributes €727m to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Cork Airport's managing director, Niall MacCarthy, has called for more local support.
"We have one of the most modern terminals in Europe serving the most passengers in Ireland outside of the capital," he said. "While we have a loyal customer base in Cork, we need the ongoing support from business and leisure travellers to ensure we continue the best choice of destinations from Munster.
"This support will ensure our continued contribution to jobs and growth, as well as ensuring the region remains connected to key destinations across the UK, Europe and beyond. To attract new routes we offer a New Route Incentive Scheme. Any new route is free from charges for the first year, meaning the airline pays zero to Cork Airport. We offer marketing support for any new route to help ensure its success. Charges here at Cork Airport haven't changed in 10 years and we are considerably cheaper (17pc) than Dublin as well as being cheaper (8pc) than our peer airports across Europe."
On a more positive note, the airline recently announced new routes to Cardiff, Ibiza and Prague.
At the heart of Cork's troubles is the fact they are competing vigorously with the likes of a resurgent Shannon Airport as well as Kerry Airport in Farranfore and they, like all other regional Irish airports, are at the mercy of the airlines.
Professor Aisling Reynolds-Feighan, a transport economist in UCD, says the problem is Ireland has too many regional airports offering essentially the same services.
"Unfortunately we have far too many airports with overlapping hinterlands, it makes their long-term sustainability very doubtful," she told the Weekend Review.
"During the boom years, smaller airports managed to do well. Even the likes of Galway Airport was performing amazingly but as soon as the recession hit, the smaller airports took the bulk of the impact. In contrast, Dublin has relatively improved and it offers a large range of services which aren't available at regional airports."
The vast improvements to the Irish road network is also a factor.
"The fact you can get from Galway to Dublin now in two hours, or from Limerick to Dublin in a similar amount of time, means the country is effectively shrinking in terms of its connectivity. Airlines can see this and they know that if they operate routes from Dublin, they'll attract enough passengers. It's very hard for smaller regional airports to compete with that," she says.
And she has a stark warning for air passengers in the south west of the country.
"Effectively you have three airports in Cork, Kerry and Shannon battling it out against each other. I can't see how this can continue in the long term. I think it's inevitable that there will have to be some form of rationalisation in the coming years," she said.
Pádraig Ó Ríordáin, chairman of the Dublin Aviation Authority (DAA), told the Oireachtas transport committee recently that there needed to be marketing support for airlines and that there was a need to look at public service obligation support for the route between Cork and Dublin, but Professor Reynolds-Feighan said that such a agreement could not be used to help resume a flight from Cork to Dublin
"Such funding would fly in the face of what PSOs are supposed to be for. They are to connect those in the more remote parts of the country with the capital. You couldn't really argue such a case for the Cork to Dublin route," she said.
While she believes the quest for increased funding at Ireland West Airport is 'sensible', she says the days of bustling arrivals halls with visitors from exotic European locations will not return any time soon.
"I don't think we'll ever return to 2007 levels at the regional airports. The competition is simply too great and Dublin Airport has moved too far ahead of the rest."
Sky's the limit? How our other airports are faring across the country
Since it decided to fly solo on January 1, 2014, Shannon Airport's income generation has really taken off. The airport enjoyed a 17pc increase in passenger numbers in 2014, with nearly 1.64 million people using its services. That was up from 1.4 million a year earlier.
The significant growth is largely down to the fact that it acquired new Ryanair routes - to the cost of nearby Cork Airport. It is now in a position to entice airlines with very attractive conditions and low charges. Last year, it added 10 new destinations. Crucially, it now receives an estimated €38m annual rent income from nearby industrial land.
In a county so heavily dependent on tourism, Kerry Airport was hit hard during the worldwide economic downturn and still seems to be fighting something of an uphill battle.
According to a report compiled by the Central Statistics Office last year, the number of passengers using Kerry Airport fell sharply between 2008 and 2013. They slumped from a height of 426,115 in 2008 to 306,042 in 2013. That decline, of just over 120,000, represented a fall of 28pc in five years.
So precarious is the plight of the South East's regional airport that the recent addition of a route to London Luton has been credited by some with 'saving' it... for the time being.
Over two years ago, Waterford was left without direct flights to the London area when Aer Lingus Regional decided to pull out. Now Belgian-based VLM Airlines will operate the London Luton route 12 times a week.
The country's most remote commercial airport saw Aer Lingus Regional replace Flybe as the provider of flights on the Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes from Donegal to Dublin and to Glasgow earlier this year.
The larger aircraft now allow for significantly increased capacity on these routes. Due to its location, many see its long-term future as secure.