'Catastrophe for tourism if slots not protected'
THE group representing Irish hoteliers has called on the Government to secure contractual rights to determine the use of the Aer Lingus landing 'slots' at Heathrow as part of any sale of the State's assets in the airline.
The Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) president, Stephen McNally, said any agreement that failed to safeguard these slots would have serious long-term implications for Irish tourism and air connectivity into the country, and particularly the regions.
Tourism officials in the south and mid-west regions have warned that any loss of access to the critical London market would be "absolutely disastrous" and the region would face catastrophic losses.
Concern is particularly acute in Cork, where the Heathrow route has increased in importance as the airport has seen its passenger numbers fall from 3.25 million in 2008 to 2.1 million last year.
Cork Airport is now effectively dependent on Aer Lingus and Ryanair, with the Heathrow route the most heavily booked of all airport services.
It is estimated the Heathrow service accounts for almost 500,000 passenger movements each year in Cork.
"To be honest, it is exactly the last thing that Cork and its airport needs to be worried about," Cork Business Association (CBA) director James O'Sullivan warned.
"Cork and Kerry tourism simply cannot afford to lose even one of the daily services to Heathrow. It is an absolutely crucial tourism and business link to the UK," he said.
Clare hotelier Michael Vaughan, who owns the four-star Vaughan Lodge Hotel in Lahinch, knows at first-hand the impact the loss of the routes will have.
Aer Lingus axed its Shannon-Heathrow services in 2007 before reinstating the routes two years later.
Mr Vaughan said they discovered at the time the Government's share in the carrier was "practically useless" in guaranteeing the slots.
"The impact was immediate for one element of tourism in particular, the organisation of conferences and seminars, because business people simply would not travel to the region if there was not direct access," he said.
Multinational executive Ken Sullivan of Element Six warned the retention of the slots must be a pre-requisite in any takeover.