Sunday 19 January 2020

Does American opportunity Knock for West of Ireland?

Joe Gilmore, managing director, Ireland West Airport and Ed Harrison, general manager, Stewart International Airport sign the link-up deal
Joe Gilmore, managing director, Ireland West Airport and Ed Harrison, general manager, Stewart International Airport sign the link-up deal

Mark Evans

While €69 one-way fares from Ireland to the US have understandably dominated the headlines in recent months, there's a bigger picture behind the much-publicised launch of Norwegian's routes from Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Shannon to the US.

The impact of more fuel-efficient planes and the aggressive marketing of smaller, secondary airports in North America has sparked a boom in the transatlantic market.

Low-cost carriers like Norwegian will see a 42pc rise in one-way seats this year; Air Berlin, 57pc; and Wow Air, which flies from Ireland to the US via Iceland is surging by 142pc. Even Aer Lingus's parent, IAG, has gotten in on the act, launching its own low-cost competitor, Level, which flies from Barcelona to both North and South America.

And smaller, lesser-served airports on both sides of the pond want a slice of the action enjoyed up to now by the big hubs like Dublin, Heathrow, Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle. Now Ireland West Airport - still probably better known as Knock - is aiming for a regular connection to the US. It's no stranger to transatlantic links, and once boasted its own non-stop routes. "We previously had services to New York and Boston in 2007 with Flyglobespan," said Donal Healy, the airport's head of marketing.

"It worked in the sense that 20,000 passengers went from the region using their service and nobody had ever heard of them before."

In the meantime, "we've had a number of charters", he says, and believes there is demand for a service, even if seasonal: "120,000 went from our catchment region last year to the States despite having no access from the region".

The airport, with a longer runway than even Cork, recently signed an agreement to become a sister airport of Stewart International, the New York state airport that's recently begun operating services to and from Irish airports.

"We meet with the carriers regularly and we've had a good relationship with Stewart in the past couple of years. The ultimate aim is to develop access but we'll share information and they'll promote the West of Ireland and we'll promote New York."

And there is a strong corporate presence already in the West, which could benefit from handier access. "Coca Cola has a base in Tuam and Balllina; Allergen, who are one of the biggest manufacturers of Botox in the world, are situated just down the road from us in Westport; then you've got 30pc of our business coming from Galway ... so we've got a fair amount of good strong multinationals."

Airport managing director Joe Gilmore signed the recent agreement in the US. While conceding that a direct link is still some way off, he adds: "There's a selection of airports on the east coast who are very eager to develop access into Ireland and mainland Europe. In the case of Stewart, it's owned by the Port Authority of New York", the controller of JFK, Newark and La Guardia airports, among others. "They purchased it back in 2009 and it appears they've made a deliberate strategic approach to make it the overflow or low-cost gateway for New York and upstate New York," he believes.

And routes which might have seemed uneconomical even a decade ago are now in play. He cites factors such as the growing popularity of Ireland for the American market, plus the advent of cost and fuel-efficient medium-sized jets like the Boeing 737 Max, but said any expansion by the likes of Norwegian would be "contingent on existing routes and new planes performing well for them".

Joe Gilmore adds: "We met Syracuse airport three months ago in Routes [an international aviation event]. They're basically doing what Stewart is doing and have discussed a similar kind of relationship with them."

Upstate Syracuse airport has a catchment area of 7 million people "within a two-hour drive", roughly a million of them of Irish heritage, Hancock International Airport executive director Christina Callahan told the Sunday Independent, adding that "10-12pc of our business is from Canada - Ottawa is just two hours' drive away; Montreal a little more". The airport has already held talks with government officials here, as well as airlines. "We're past the preliminary stage," Callahan says, and has had meetings with interested parties.

She says the airport, with new infrastructure and security lanes spending, has an "average wait time of 10-12 minutes", comparing that to the backlogs of the bigger airports. The airport's DC lobbyist, former Congressman James T Walsh, is no stranger to here, chairing the historic Congressional delegation to Ireland, along with President Bill Clinton, to work on the peace process.

The Walsh Visa programme for Irish citizens to the States was named after him. "I still see members of Congress on the Hill ­- those memories are still fresh," he says, and it's a handy in when promoting upstate New York.

When asked if outbound passengers see Ireland as a gateway to Europe, he says there is huge interest in Ireland as a standalone destination, while Callahan believes upstate New York is an untapped destination for Europeans.

And while there has been vocal political and labour opposition to open skies between the EU and US, Walsh sees an appetite in Washington for more air links, echoing Joe Gilmore's view that smaller airports are there to complement, not compete with, the major players.

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