Thursday 18 January 2018

Day that Ireland really took off - Aer Lingus turns 80

Aer Lingus began flying 80 years ago tomorrow, changing everything

First flight: A six-seater De Havilland 84 Dragon, repainted in the livery of Aer Lingus’ original aircraft, Iolar.
First flight: A six-seater De Havilland 84 Dragon, repainted in the livery of Aer Lingus’ original aircraft, Iolar.

Damian Corless

Aer Lingus started up 80 years ago tomorrow on May 22, 1936 and profoundly changed the life of a nation. Before that first bumpy flight from ­Baldonnel Aerodrome to Bristol, we weren't entirely an isolated island people, dislocated from the wider world, but we were close. Just 20 years earlier we had even been in a different time zone to Britain. The advent of our national carrier was a game changer, for those who could afford it. They were just a few, but they meant business.

In contrast to most Irish corporate stories, Aer Lingus highlights much ado about women. As the new airline expanded, it recruited its first generation of pilots almost entirely from the National Junior Aviation Club run by the Anglo-Irish aviatrix Lady Mary Heath. From Knockaderry in Limerick, Mary Heath was a force of nature. High drama characterised her life from the age of one when her father bludgeoned her mother to death.

Leaving school on Dublin's Mespil Road, Mary served as a World War One dispatch rider, became British javelin champion, set a disputed world record for the high-jump and became a delegate to the Olympic Council. But that wasn't enough.

As Ireland's most celebrated aviatrix during the Golden Age of Flight, she made world headlines in 1928 as the first pilot of either sex to fly from Cape Town in South Africa to London in an open cockpit plane. She had the world at her feet before a crash at an Ohio air show left her with horrific career-ending injuries and a steel plate in her skull. She returned to Ireland with her third husband where she would train most of the first Aer Lingus pilots to earn their wings. When another of her enterprises, Dublin Air Ferries, took a nosedive in 1938, Lady Mary Heath went down with it. Destroyed by a third marriage breakdown, a chronic drink problem and bankruptcy, she died in 1939 after falling down the stairs of a London tram.

In fact, even before Aer Lingus, Ireland was at the top of the game. At the very beginning of Hitler's rise to power, the greatest aviator of the day, James Fitzmaurice, enhanced his reputation at home with a lavishly reported meet-and-greet with the newly installed Chancellor Hitler. But the real making of Aer Lingus was Shannon Airport. During the first age of flight, the west of Ireland was the key point of contact between the US and Europe and into the 1970s, the Shannon stopover was the first port of call for aircraft seeking to refuel.

It was seriously argued during the 1960s that one of the most glamorous jobs an Irish woman could aspire to was to be an Aer Lingus hostess. The government encouraged this, publishing a brochure with the information: "Air Hostess With Aer Lingus (Age 20-26). Girls Only."

Qualifications to become a hostess included "an attractive appearance, a pleasing personality and capacity for hard work. The applicant needs perfect hearing, teeth and eyesight and must be between five foot two inches and five foot eight inches in height, and eight stone to nine stone seven in weight scaled to height."

Aer Lingus only added the shamrock to its livery in 1958 when it began its first regular service from Shannon to New York.

The issue with Aer Lingus into the late 1980s was that it held a tight-fisted duopoly with British Airways, which kept air fares in and out of this country sky-high. Step forward Irish businessman Tony Ryan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. For most people in the 1980s, the only affordable way to get on or off this island was to take the cattle boat.

Back then a return ticket to Paris (£98) or Amsterdam (£95) cost 10 times today's price.

Founded in the 1980s, Ryanair had to survive a near-death experience at the hands of Aer Lingus and British Airways which tried to prevent the newcomer from busting their hugely profitable stranglehold on routes.

The rescue mission that saved Ryanair was led by Thatcher who vetoed BA's veto and in 1986, Ryanair finally got a toehold in Dublin and London (almost) when it began ferrying passengers to and from Luton Airport. Even then, both Aer Lingus and BA tried to veto the arrival of competition via a legal instrument called "double disapproval".

Aer Lingus fought the law and the law won. Times were a changing, and for the good.

Sadly, the net effect in the mid-1980s was to make it cheaper to emigrate.

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