Sunday 24 September 2017

Coalition can fasten seatbelts if Heathrow slots sold

Helen McNamee from Swords, Dublin before boarding her Aer Lingus flight to London Heathrow. Photo: Mark Condren
Helen McNamee from Swords, Dublin before boarding her Aer Lingus flight to London Heathrow. Photo: Mark Condren
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

There was an atmosphere of calm at Gate 407 in Dublin Airport's Terminal 2. No sign of the giddy gate-fever of the outbound holiday-maker heading for the sun, or the larkiness of a bunch of pals off to a match or on a weekend skite.

Instead, many of the passengers were travelling alone, accompanied only by a laptop and small bag. There were a couple of families with babies, but most had the appearance of business travellers. Nipping over to London is a familiar ritual for many Irish people, akin to hopping over the wall into the neighbours' gaff. By plane, it's a mere puddle-jump of less than an hour.

And there's certainly no shortage of seats, given that four different carriers service the route and over 50 flights depart daily from Dublin for London between Mondays and Fridays.

So, given this cornucopia of choice, why is there such a hullabaloo among many politicians and members of the public alike (a rare alliance) over the notion that the flights from Dublin, Cork and Shannon to London Heathrow may be scrapped at some point, if the Aer Lingus takeover bid by IAG is successful?

The reasons, it appears, are myriad, as expressed by travellers on the 10.40am flight on Thursday. The EI158 is the third of Aer Lingus's 11 daily weekday flights into Heathrow, and although it was past the morning rush-hour peak, the plane was about three-quarters full.

John O'Sullivan from Co Kildare was travelling for pleasure, but he also uses the route for business trips. He almost always flies with Aer Lingus. "I like flying with them, it's a habit. They're a reputable airline with no safety problems. I'm familiar with Heathrow airport, and it has great connectivity with the city," he said, adding, "I would be concerned that if IAG do take over, that Irish travellers could lose out if this slot goes".

Helen McNamee from Swords was transiting through Heathrow en route to Vancouver to visit her boyfriend for four days. She doesn't think ceding control of the Heathrow slots is a good idea. "It doesn't seem like an intelligent plan. It's a route which brings a lot of traffic and business to the airport, so losing them could put jobs at risk," she said.

Dubliner John Cleary, who works in banking, uses the route about six times a year. "It's an excellent carrier and an Aer Lingus flight into Heathrow is my first port of call when I'm booking a flight. Losing the slots would have a massive impact on business travel," he reckoned.

"Aer Lingus has a national identity, it's regarded as the national carrier and its customers are very loyal - when the price is right".

Ann Bourke, who works for the HSE, explained that she shops around for the best deal, but does regularly use the Heathrow route. "Aer Lingus is the national carrier - I used to work abroad for years, and it was always a great feeling to board the green plane home," she said. "The Government should think very long and hard before selling their stake, as it's part of our culture."

And since last year, Heathrow has been a far more pleasant place to fly into, since Aer Lingus was re-housed in the spanking new Terminal 2. No more sweaty gallops through ugly tube-like mazes past mediocre shops and cafés down to the shabby stretch of Gates 80 to 88.

For Terminal 2 is compact and posh, with swift access to the Heathrow Express, short walks to and from gates, and with two floors of swanky shops (among them, Gucci, Chanel, John Lewis and Harrods) and a profusion of food and drink emporia.

Local resident Kit, who works in one of the restaurants, was taken aback by the proposal that there could be a threat to the Aer Lingus route.

"That would be bad for us. All day long the tables are busy with Irish people. Often big groups of them. The evening time is very busy with Irish going home after work - they eat and have a few beers. The place would be very quiet without them," he said.

Waiting for the 2.20pm flight to Dublin was cinematographer Des Whelan, whose work with directors including Jim Sheridan and Tim Burton means that he commutes on a weekly basis between his home in Dublin to his base in London. "I would use this route about 20 times a year. Heathrow is key as it's close to the studios such as Pinewood and Shepperton. I would massively miss the route, I'd need counselling," he explained. "It's part of my routine - I get the last flight to Dublin on a Friday, and return on the last one on Sunday."

Des believes that the loss of the route wouldn't make much difference to casual weekend travellers, but to commuters it's not a luxury, but an essential service.

"I think that if in a couple of years they sold the slots to, say, Lufthansa, it'll be like the decision to close the Harcourt Street train-line - a total lack of planning and business sense," he said.

It seems that Heathrow is no longer regarded as a hell-hole by long-suffering travellers. So if the Coalition does decide to sell their shares, they better fasten their seatbelts - it could get very bumpy indeed.

Irish Independent

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