After years of decline, Cork Airport's fortunes are looking up with a new transatlantic service awaiting a permit to fly. But will it be competitively priced?
"Every time I fly home, I get emotional," says Hughie Walsh.
As Ireland approaches, my eyes well up. But to look out the window and see Cork City, my home town, beneath me would be... well, out of this world."
Walsh left Leeside in 1989. Today he runs his own flooring business just north of Boston and tries to get home at least once a year.
On or around May 13, the US Department of Transportation (DoT) will decide once and for all if the Irish-registered and licensed Norwegian Air International (NAI), a subsidiary of low-cost airline Norwegian Air Shuttle, is to be given a permit to fly to the US.
It's taken two years to get to this point with pilots' unions and some large American airlines lobbying against the granting of a permit. They argue that NAI won't create jobs in the US, but others say the objections are down to a fear that low-cost transatlantic air travel will change the market and increase competition - good for the consumer, not so much for existing carriers.
On April 14, after lobbying by Irish bodies, the European Commission and Irish politicians (even Enda had a word in President Obama's ear when the bowl of shamrock was handed over in March), the US DoT proposed granting a permit to travel for NAI. However, interested parties were allowed 21 days to lodge support or objections before the final decision is made.
So how much could transatlantic air travel cost on the limited-frills airline?
"Well, if you look at our prices from London Gatwick to New York JFK at the moment, you'll see a direct flight is available for just £149 (€192) and from Paris you can fly to JFK for €199 - we anticipate our price-structuring from Cork will be similar," Chase Burns, a public relations manager with Norwegian, told me this week. And he confirmed NAI are also in talks with other Irish airports, including Shannon, about operating from there too.
On the announcement of 'tentative approval', Champagne corks popped in rebel country but some are keeping the bubbly on ice. "We're not taking it for granted that the permit will be issued, but we're confident the right decision will be made," Cork Airport's managing director, Niall MacCarthy, tells Review.
Already Tourism Ireland officials in the US are planning campaigns to promote Cork as the perfect place to begin your Irish adventure.
But for the last seven years, Cork Airport has endured major difficulties. The construction of a new state-of-the-art terminal building coincided with the economic downturn. Cork, a member of daa (the Dublin Airport Authority), has run up debts of around €200m and passenger numbers declined from 3.25 million in 2008 to just over two million last year.
daa maintains that the massive debt is being serviced and doesn't impact directly on the running costs of the airport. Also Shannon Airport broke free of daa in December 2012 and secured a €105m debt write-off, allowing it to entice airlines with reduced landing charges. Cork took the hit. And tragedy struck on February 10, 2011 when six people died after their flight from Belfast crashed while attempting to land.
Now, after years of difficulties and heartbreak, Cork Airport's fortunes appear to be improving at last. "This year we expect passenger growth of just over 8pc overall. We also expect, all things going to plan, to boost passenger numbers by around 200,000 in 2017," explains MacCarthy.
New airlines such as CityJet, Iberia Express, Flybe and NAI have given commitments to Cork Airport with a raft of new routes emerging.
CityJet now has a base there, flying directly to London City, while Aer Lingus Regional will fly direct to Southampton and Leeds-Bradford in the coming months. Aer Lingus will operate new flights to Dusseldorf this year, with new additional routes to Madrid (Iberia Express) and Menorca, Nantes and La Rochelle (CityJet).
"Additionally, Aer Lingus and Ryanair have increased flight frequencies. Next winter, Ryanair will be offering a combined increased capacity of 50,000 seats on their routes," says MacCarthy.
But it's the prospect of a red-and-white Boeing 737-800 aircraft touching down having arrived from Boston that's seen as the major game changer on Leeside. "It's been our ambition for years to have direct transatlantic access into Cork," explains Conor Healy, the chief executive of the Cork Chamber which has played a vital role in lobbying for the permit.
"It's vital now that interested groups officially register their support so that we don't get any surprises in May. The new transatlantic routes will change the way Cork will be marketed abroad and will be great for the business and tourism sectors here," he adds.
Initially, if the permit is granted, NAI would attempt to begin flights to Boston in August. The flights would originate in Barcelona but stop off at Cork to collect passengers before continuing to Logan Airport. In 2017, a route to New York will be added. But will the non-availability of US immigration clearance in Cork put passengers off? Not necessarily, says UCD professor of transport economics Aisling J Reynolds-Feighan.
"If the speed of passenger processing at Cork reduces the wait time and pre-flight delays, then the total journey time might be relatively similar to alternate routings through Dublin or Shannon. Dublin Airport recommends 3.5 hours check-in before transatlantic flights," she tells Review.
"Boston Airport estimates immigration processing to take an average of about 30 to 45 minutes so if check-in at Cork can be done in 90-120 minutes, then the lack of US pre-clearance services may not be such a disadvantage."
For Cork-based Eugene Murphy, the founder and CEO of new technology company Indeemo, being able to travel to the US for work from Cork will be welcome news.
"Having to drive to Dublin or Shannon and possibly book a hotel the night before in order to grab an early morning flight to the US means there's a lot of wasted time," he says. "With a direct flight from Cork, the US would literally be a 20-minute drive away. The ability to grab an early flight to Boston or New York, book in a few meetings and then be back at your desk for work the next morning would be transformational for Cork businesses."
Now the key is making this long-held dream a reality.