Thursday 14 November 2019

Nostalgia for golden days of aviation could cloud our thinking

Aer Lingus
Aer Lingus
John Downing

John Downing

I know I am not the only one who still thinks, deep down, that Aer Lingus is "ours". And I know my reasoning on the issue is ropey enough, a sort of mix of nostalgia and fear that Aer Lingus will be sold and Ireland will lose.

No, it has not escaped my notice either that Aer Lingus is now just 25pc State-owned. Yes, my take on it all is buoyed up by memories of glamorous young women and men in shining uniforms waiting for the Shannon bus in Limerick, as they headed out to fly across the Atlantic. Later, I would learn of the politics of the airport which also complicated things and fed into that impressionistic memory of glamour.

The decent wages and clean indoor work, without much heavy-lifting, were relatively new in Ireland of the 1960s.

Work at Shannon Airport, and indeed the other airports, ticked at least some of those boxes. And those who had influence in the giving of that work, or who had such envied posts already, had access to political clout.

The Fianna Fáil organisation guarded it all jealously. Fine Gael struggled against allegations of recalled statements by some of their principals that Shannon would fail. Labour tried to work the unions but found Fianna Fáil had good influence there too.

My early impression that Fianna Fáil had a big slice of the "airport vote" was doubly reinforced by later acquaintance with northside Dublin.

Ray Burke later became well-known for other things - but his considerable vote-getting abilities were interlinked with Dublin Airport.

Of course, the corollary of all that is that the Dublin Airport workers particularly also packed a big punch politically for a very long time.

The independent Socialist TD Clare Daly in time put the established parties under pressure on this one, again in part due to her links to the airport as a worker and union leader there.

But over time, there is more than a suspicion that, for a variety of reasons, the politics of the airport are not what they used to be. Union power has waned, air travel is accessible and much of the associated glamour, real or imagined, just is not there any more.

It is the other side of democratic and affordable air travel. It is a reminder that the only constant is change - and that the airline is as volatile as any.

But events of recent days tell us at least some of the old "airport political vibe" persists and the Government is in a tricky enough position. As an island, we depend a lot on air travel for business, tourism and social reasons.

The Government will look at attaching conditions before selling its 25pc as a hedge against future political fallout. Everyone gets the importance of the Heathrow slots, the uncertain future of those regional airports, including Shannon, and you can add to that the prospects of job losses in a taken-over Aer Lingus.

The prospect that the airline will remain Aer Lingus in name is a positive which could help assuage fears associated with a sale.

It is hard to argue with €1.3bn on the table. We await a definite ruling on just how much political clout is left in the airports.

Irish Independent

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