Chief of Ireland West Airport and customers flying high as business takes off after closure, writes Eavan Murray
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ireland in March 2020, flights were grounded and our island nation saw all air travel ground virtually to a halt.
“It was an absolute disaster. It was a horror show,” says Joe Gilmore, the managing director of Ireland West Airport.
He describes breaking the news to the 150 staff – that the airport was shutting and they all had to go home – as the lowest moment of his career.
“It was the most unimaginably difficult day,” Mr Gilmore said. “We have people here who have worked here for decades. It was an incredibly difficult time for everyone.
“Just weeks before that, Flybe went into administration, and we lost Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh – 15pc of our route network.
“Then Covid hit, and we were effectively shut down for 16 months. We didn’t know what was ahead for air travel or would it ever be the same. It was soul-destroying in that respect.”
But the future is once again bright for the Mayo airport formerly known as Knock.
The Irish Independent visited last Friday morning as 160 passengers arrived from Luton. Another planeload was taking off for Malaga.
The Ryanair-Luton flight landed at 9.40am, and within five minutes, passengers were walking through arrivals.
We spoke to many travellers who commute weekly to London from Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Sligo.
The airport means they can work and earn a good living to support their families, yet still be part of their communities and maintain family life.
Brendan O’Sullivan from Belmullet, Co Mayo, who works in construction in London, says it is almost impossible to quantify the airport’s importance.
“I come home every Friday,” he said. “This airport is everything to this part of the world. I and many others wouldn’t be able to do what we do without it. When it was closed, everyone was only coming home every second or third week, and that’s hard when you want to spend time with your family.”
Martin Munnelly, also from Belmullet, can name 60 or 70 people who take the Monday morning London flight.
“I’d say the plane holds about 175 people, and 150 of them would be those who commute weekly,” he said.
“The vast majority would work in construction, but there are all kinds of people travelling now.
“It was very difficult when the airport was closed.
“We had to fly to Dublin, and then get back across to Mayo, even with no traffic takes four hours. So this airport is a real lifeline for the likes of us and our families.”
Lucy Conlon (32) from Westport works as an interior designer in London and flies home often to see her parents.
Ireland West charges a development fee of €10 to all departing passengers aged 12 and over. Some grumble over the additional charge, but Lucy doesn’t mind. “The airport massively opens up the west of Ireland, and I know some people give out about the tenner fee, but I would pay anything to keep this airport open. It is so handy,” she said.
“From landing, to getting off the plane, picking up your bags takes less than 10 minutes most days.
“And I’m back home in Westport in 40 minutes. It’s great.”
Aer Lingus will fly daily to Gatwick from December, and Joe Gilmore sees more reasons for optimism.
“I think one of the benefits that could come from this is that people will see that smaller airports like ours are not as congested, and with Covid, they will flock more to us. And It’s more convenient,” he said.
“People will complain to us if it takes longer than 10 minutes to get through. It’s difficult to put a price on that convenience.”
The airport is now back to 60pc pre-pandemic numbers and thanks to Government pandemic supports, it has been able to bring back most of its staff.
“The recovery in sun and short breaks has been phenomenal,” Mr Gilmore said.
“Ryanair added additional services to Faro. We also fly to Malaga, Palma, Alicante, and the flights are all pretty full.
“We have eight destinations to the UK, and Ryanair is responsible for seven of them. And we have Gatwick starting in December.”
Across Europe, smaller airports are recovering faster, mainly due to dealing with more short-haul flights.
Mr Gilmore believes this bodes well for 2022.
“In 2019, we had 807,000 passengers, our busiest ever year, and the target was for this year we would have got to the landmark one million,” he said.
Covid in 2020 saw numbers plummet to 143,000, the lowest since 1995.
“Next year, we are hoping to make it to 650,000,” Mr Gilmore said. “I don’t think there will actually be a low season this year because there is so much pent-up demand. I’m just looking there now, and you can fly to Milan on December 4 for €23. You can still get to Bergamo in January for skiing for €100 return.
“In this business, there are great emotions in terms of the service we provide. And to see it brought back to life is wonderful.
“We are looking forward to a busy Christmas period, and there is always a lot of joy and positivity around. And the staff are so happy to be back.”
One such staff member is Mary McDonnell, who has run the airport shop between arrivals and departures for the past 17 years.
At one stage, both her husband and her son worked in the airport.
Her son is now an air traffic controller in Dublin, and Mary is very proud of him.
“The airport closing was terrible. It was an awful feeling,” she said. “This is an important place. I’m privileged in that I get to see some very special moments.
“You see some beautiful reunions and some very sad departures.”