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Our post-Covid recovery cannot take off until the air travel industry does



The empty departures area of Dublin Airport during Covid travel restrictions. Photo:Gerry Mooney

The empty departures area of Dublin Airport during Covid travel restrictions. Photo:Gerry Mooney

The empty departures area of Dublin Airport during Covid travel restrictions. Photo:Gerry Mooney

 Of all countries in Europe Ireland has the greatest dependence on air travel as a means to support its economy and employment.

That fact alone should warrant a level of political prioritisation regarding air travel that has been absent since Covid laid waste to the global economy at the start of 2020.

An urgent need now exists to devise an action plan that can be triggered and implemented at rapid speed once governments give the green light to air travel, hopefully before spring 2021 as vaccines are disseminated.

Some hard facts explain why aviation has a unique role in the Irish economy:

1. Ireland is a physical island whose economy is lashed to the mast of international markets. Air travel provides the critical transport link to that source of business and tourism.

2. Aviation supports 140,000 jobs and generates almost €9bn in annual GDP.

3. Key sectors in the economy outside Dublin, notably tourism, have an umbilical cord dependence on aviation for their survival and future.

Alongside these critical economic factors, Ireland also has access to a powerful resource in the global aviation industry. A cohort of Irish executives hold leadership positions in some of the largest aviation companies across the world.

Indeed, Ireland has been an incubator of aviation leaders for decades, and all of these can be tapped for insight and advice by Government. The communication silence in that regard has been deafening.

The past ten months has shown a dysfunctional relationship between officialdom and aviation in Ireland. Instead of thoughtful and considered work designed to get aviation recovered at speed in a post-Covid world, a catfight has ensued.

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Finger pointing, flight shaming, bogus celebrity medic opinions and nonsensical notions about air travel have traversed political and media circles.

The debate has been largely devoid of ideas that actually help position air travel as an enabler of economic recovery.

Instead, a dose of cross-eyed narratives about air travel have washed around with little regard for the deep economic damage caused by a grounded aviation infrastructure.

Any cursory examination of Irish history quickly surfaces the value political leaders have long attached to aviation. Éamon de Valera was an advocate of pioneering air connectivity since the 1930s, notably by supporting the development of Foynes and later Shannon airport. Seán Lemass drove airports and airlines in Ireland to think with ambition.

The two leading Irish airlines, Aer Lingus and Ryanair, have been enabled and empowered by political actions that allowed one to become Europe’s largest low cost carrier and the other to form an integral part of the strongest European flag carrier, IAG.

Against this backdrop, it is remarkable to witness the flaccid politics that define Ireland’s attitude to aviation at present amid an unprecedented crisis.

An opportunity still exists to fix this.

The prospect of sustained and widespread deployment of vaccines through 2021 and 2022 lays down the foundation for a recovery in safe air travel. Rapid advances in testing kit efficacy, and at lower costs, provides more weapons in the fight against Covid.

This is the canvas on which Government can paint a plan which kick-starts air travel in a material way as we work through 2021.

It needs a clear set of inputs, including:

  1.    An extensive, ready-to-go marketing plan by tourism agencies and the IDA to announce the reopening of air travel to and from Ireland.

 2.   A landing charge amnesty for any airlines that commit capacity in to any Irish airport for the period from Easter 2021 until year end.

  3.    A  political commitment to making aviation a key asset in unlocking the Irish economy and recovering lost jobs, including media and conference attendances by key Government ministers.

A clear and unequivocal roadmap like this has the greatest chance of eliciting a positive response from international airlines that will soon choose where to deploy their fleets as the next year unfolds.  

 This plan needs all the energy and focus that powered the Gathering strategy after the global financial crisis in 2008. Then, the government had a clear objective – boost tourism significantly.

This time the objective is even more ambitious – re-boot the whole Irish economy by safely opening and encouraging a large network of flights to and from Ireland. 

Failure to achieve that outcome will handicap an island economy whose dependence on air travel connectivity is unique across all of Europe.

Joe Gill is director of origination and corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers.

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