Friday 20 September 2019

Shannon makes short-term support case as Brexit looms

‘West of Ireland needs to be considered in terms of connectivity,’ says Shannon’s Andrew Thomas
‘West of Ireland needs to be considered in terms of connectivity,’ says Shannon’s Andrew Thomas

Mark Evans

As the Brexit clock counts down to what's shaping up to be an annus horribilis in 2019, all sides are finally shaping up their stitched-together plans for the days and months after March.

Aviation is still an area that hasn't dominated the headlines in the same way as the Border issue, but it's just as vital for the business community.

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EU airlines can fly anywhere in the Union, and onwards, under the current Open Skies agreement but a long-term replacement under a no-deal Brexit hasn't been thrashed out to ensure connections between UK airports and those in member states.

And in a no-deal the likes of British Airways may face issues as an airline can only operate in Europe if at least half of its shares are held within the EU. It's been reported that parent group IAG - headquartered in Spain - is in talks with the Spanish government about what to do.

Here at home, Shannon Group, which operates Shannon Airport, has raised its own concerns. Unlike Cork, which has connections to the EU via Paris, or Dublin, which has numerous EU hub links, Shannon has just one major hub connection: London Heathrow. Shannon Group issued a statement last week, calling on Government to support it "in safeguarding EU connectivity for the Mid-West and Western regions".

At present, the European Commission line is that UK airlines will continue to fly to and from member states after March 31 - as long as those airlines satisfy EU ownership requirements

"All of it looks very interim which is one of the challenges, and what it looks like in the longer term is anyone's guess," Andrew Murphy, MD of Shannon Group, told the Sunday Independent. On aviation, he fears "where in the pecking order is this?"

"The key piece for us in the whole Brexit debate is it's a once in a lifetime economic event and we think on that basis the west of Ireland needs to be considered in terms of connectivity," he added.

"One of the challenges is that geographically we're another half an hour from Dublin, which is a lot more fuel, and equally we're competing against airports which might only be an hour from Paris or Amsterdam - the key hubs.

"We're on an unlevel playing field to some extent - and in the normal events we keep going, but Brexit is different, particularly with the companies here that need to do business. It's an economic story rather than a Shannon airport story." His major concern in the longer term is that the connecting process through Heathrow will "become more burdensome for travellers", making it a "less-viable option". Shannon is looking at a twin-track approach ­- safeguarding connectivity to the EU via London, and attracting new direct services to an EU hub, such as Amsterdam or Paris.

Shannon Group CEO Matthew Thomas has made a case to the Government for a "connectivity funding programme", which Andrew Murphy confirmed, saying: "The key mechanism here is financial in the short-term - airlines look at this and say we're going to lose money in the first year, can that be supported. We can go to some length to support that, but can the Exchequer or tourism Ireland support us in that short-term to get that business case over the line for an airline?"

n There's good news though for transatlantic business travellers, with Dublin one of six destinations to get United Airlines' most modern aircraft.

The current 777-200s in service from Dublin to Newark will be replaced by newly-ordered 787-10s from May 22, the airline told this column.

The planes will feature 44 business-class seats, 21 Premium Plus seats, 54 Economy Plus seats and 199 in standard Economy. The big plus is that the new aircraft will feature the full frills of the airline's Polaris business class, the carrier's move to match service levels of the Middle Eastern carriers.

The airline has been rolling out the new service, and up to now, Irish business passengers have only seen elements of it, including its updated lounges in Newark and Chicago and on-board changes such as Saks Fifth Avenue bedding. Now it's the full deal, and the most noticeable change will be full access to the aisles from every seat.

Given that Polaris is a product aimed to promote rest, it'll end the hassle of stepping over - or waking - a sleeping fellow passenger if you're at a window seat. The aircraft also features updated lighting patterns (along the lines of those used on Gulf carriers) that mimic sunrise and sunset to help customers adjust to new time zones.

Along with new seatback entertainment options, the 787-10 - the biggest variation of the Boeing Dreamliner - also has one big advantage for the business traveller; reducing jet lag. With better air quality and pressures, the Dreamliner has been touted by its maker as an aircraft that keeps you refreshed, and so far the response has been positive from business travellers in particular ­- a bonus if you're heading from a flight to a meeting during a short transatlantic turnaround in New York.

Sunday Indo Business

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