Tuesday 23 January 2018

Knock Airport at 30: The miracle that keeps on giving... and taking

Flying high

Minor miracle: Monsignor Horan on October 25, 1985, before boarding the first commercial flight from Knock to Rome.
Minor miracle: Monsignor Horan on October 25, 1985, before boarding the first commercial flight from Knock to Rome.
Ireland West Airport Knock
Tom Neary, CEO Joe Gilmore, and Terry Reilly at Ireland West Airport Knock. Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus
Elaine Greally and Ann Marie Murphy have both worked at the airport since it opened.
Monsignor James Horan pushed for an airport in Knock after the 1979 Papal visit.

Graham Clifford

Three decades since flights first landed in rural Mayo, Knock Airport is alive and kicking - but could it survive without State assistance and, in this its busiest year, can it finally show it's ready to stand on its own two feet?

Aircraft now land where bog cotton once swayed.

On a boggy hill top in Barnacogue, North Mayo, the most outlandish of dreams became a reality 30 years ago this week - all thanks to a visionary cleric who wouldn't take no for an answer and who described himself as "an old man in a hurry".

This summer, Ireland West Airport, or Knock Airport as its more commonly referred to, will welcome its 10 millionth passenger. The impossible has materialised and, what's more, those behind the airport today are planning for expansion, passenger growth and the resumption of transatlantic traffic.

This will be the busiest year in the airport's 30-year history and in the coming weeks it will finalise a deal with the seven local authorities in the west and north-west to receive €7.3m investment in the airport for a 17.5pc share of the company.

On my way west, and just before I arrive at the airport's terminal building, I pull over by the statue of Monsignor James Horan. His hands reach for the sky and as I peer towards the blue an aircraft, which has just taken off from the nearby stretch of tarmac, climbs above the lacklustre clouds.

I'm reminded of his simple, but effective, logic after the Monsignor waved off Pope John Paul II from Knock in 1979: "Everyone else has an airport, so why not the west? Look what an airport did for Shannon. Look what an airport did for Lourdes."

That he could have delivered an airport here at all was incredible - the fact its still going strong a near miracle.

Ireland West Airport Knock
Ireland West Airport Knock

Joe Gilmore, the airport's Managing Director, is optimistic about the future.

"We plan to double our passenger numbers over the next decade, from 750,000 now to 1.5 million in 2026, also to add additional routes and drive further inbound traffic and tourism," he says. "The benefits of further investment are clear for the West. And now the region can take proactive ownership of the airport through the channel of their shareholding, which is exciting both from a tourism and economic development perspective.

"We're also in talks with a number of airlines about the possibility of establishing regular flights to the US. The north west of Ireland doesn't have the access to the American market that other regions have, so we believe we could sustain weekly scheduled services, say three flights a week, to Boston and New York, during the summer season."

But throughout its 30-year history, Knock Airport has had its critics.

Built at the height of a recession, with the Irish exchequer in tatters, and funded by State subsidies over the decades, many argue that the amount of money ploughed into Knock has been wasteful - and that investment across the region to improve its infrastructure would have yielded a better return.

In 2014, the Connaught Airport Development Company, which operates Ireland West Airport Knock, recorded a pre-tax loss of €536,618 before a government operational subvention. The airport received €2.47m in government funding for operational functions and capital expenditure, resulting in an overall pre-tax profit of €11,982.

Tom Neary, CEO Joe Gilmore, and Terry Reilly at Ireland West Airport Knock. Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus
Tom Neary, CEO Joe Gilmore, and Terry Reilly at Ireland West Airport Knock. Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus
Elaine Greally and Ann Marie Murphy have both worked at the airport since it opened.

"These subsidies, which have kept the smaller regional airports open, create something of a bounty for low-cost airlines," says Professor Jim Deegan, Head of Economics at the University of Limerick.

"There was a mentality that if one area got an airport, then another one demanded the same. This is what happened in Knock and, as a result, Ireland ended up with far too many airports for a small country and nobody really got a good service. The airlines suit themselves with every seat heavily subsidised by public money. We've taken a very short-term view in terms of transport policy in Ireland. Were the road networks into the west improved with the many millions we've spent on regional airports, then there's a strong argument that this would have been a much more sustainable investment. Rural development is crucial but artificially creating something costs a lot of money and isn't always the way to go."

But when Monsignor Horan first ordered the bulldozers into the wild terrain to start clearing earth, stones and ditches, the bottom line was not to the forefront of his vision.

He'd long held the view that Mayo and rural Ireland deserved equal treatment with the rest of the country, that it had been neglected by successive governments and the airport would connect the people of the west with the rest of the world.

"He was first and foremost a proud Mayo man and a proud west of Ireland man who understood people in rural communities and the need for common sense," says his long-time right-hand man and friend Tom Neary.

"Deep down, he wasn't interested in politics but at the same time knew how to handle politicians and won them all over no matter what side they were on."

Indeed, Charles Haughey agreed to an airport in Knock over dinner with Monsignor Horan, guaranteeing the colourful cleric, "We'll give it sympathetic consideration". That was good enough for Monsignor Horan, though the story goes that Haughey thought he had agreed to a grass strip, and the priest led the charge cleverly using the political upheaval of the early 1980s to entice support from rival political parties. With no firm commitment given, Monsignor Horan went full-steam ahead hiring workers to flatten a 7,000m strip.

And when funding temporarily ceased, he and the local community raffled off land, houses, machinery and cattle to raise the remainder.

Before they knew where they were, various governments had committed millions to the Knock Airport project and on May 30, 1986, Haughey was cutting the ribbon on the new airport in front of 20,000 excited Mayo folk. The jobs blackspot of Europe was front-page news for all the right reasons.

If Hollywood pitched a film of how Knock Airport came to life, we'd describe it as far-fetched but in this case fact was stranger than fiction.

"It was surreal. Who'd ever think this plan to build an airport on top of this foggy, boggy hill could possibly succeed? People were always telling Monsignor Horan 'you can't do this and you can't do that, it can't be done' but he always confounded them. He didn't suffer fools gladly and believed in what he was doing," says Terry Reilly, who wrote the book and musical On a Wing and a Prayer, the story of Knock Airport.

Economist and former senator Sean Barrett believes that while passenger numbers at Ireland West Airport have been somewhat turbulent over the years, it continues to hold its own.

"Irish airports had some five million fewer passengers in 2014 than in 2007 but Knock added 100,000 passengers. Current growth projections of 9pc in 2016 would retain its market share," says Barrett. "The three quarters of a million passengers at Knock this year are a sign of success and the airport has coped with the recession better than other airports here. A management operational and expenditure subvention of just under €600,000 was required in 2015. The airport would gain from greater industrial and tourism development in its region. There will be difficulties ahead but much has already been accomplished."

But he warns: "Dublin's scale of operation, frequency of services and easy direct motorway access from Belfast, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Wexford will be a huge challenge to all the other airports on the island."

Meanwhile, Edgar Morgenroth, Associate Research Professor with the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), tells Review that were Ireland West Airport not servicing the west and north west region, the entire area could greatly suffer. "The reality is, it caters for a large area and since the demise of Galway Airport it's very important for those who live in the counties of the north west in particular.

"Subsidies are key for these regional airports - without them they'd struggle to survive. But in terms of Knock, it's doing well, however, the fear is that it might be limited in terms of its potential to grow much more because of a lack of local-population density."

The economic projections come and go but Elaine Greally, the aviation slot co-ordinator at Knock, and Ann Marie Murphy, who works in accounts, remain at the heart of the airport's success. The two ladies started work for the airport on day one and 30 years on they're still here.

Over the years, they've worked in every area of the airport from customer care to baggage, to the sweet shop, even chipping in with cleaning aircraft on occasion in the early years.

"On my first day on the job I ended up cleaning the windows in the traffic control tower," recalls Ann Marie.

She's seen the airport change so much down through the decades.

"All the staff are in it together - it's been like that since the very start. It's a local airport, supported by local people, so you knew so many of those using it. My daughter works here now and my mother did at one time so we've had three generations of the one family here over the years."

Elaine met her husband at the airport. "I remember I used to work in check-in back in the eighties and you'd see the elation when emigrants came home at Christmas and then the sadness when they'd go back in January. The airport was an extension of the local area - it still is - and we couldn't imagine life without it. We're proud of it and its growth. It's part of us. It always will be."

The Making of an Airport

The 1930s: Locals in the Pilgrimage village of Knock first discuss the prospect of an air strip to boost visitor numbers

Pope John Paul II visits Knock on his 1979 trip to Ireland. After he leaves Monsignor James Horan (below) decides to push for an airport.

Monsignor James Horan pushed for an airport in Knock after the 1979 Papal visit.

In 1980, Charles Haughey gives tentative approval to consider Monsignor Horan's request to fund an airport near Knock. Horan takes this as approval and commissions workers to start clearing a large site north of Knock.

A combination of Government money granted during a recession, and fund-raised money helps deliver the new airport. The airport opened on October 25, 1985 with three Aer Lingus charter flights to Rome. On May 30, 1986, the airport is officially opened by Charles Haughey.

In 2006, the airport re-branded Ireland West Airport Knock

In 2016, Knock will welcome its 10 millionth passenger

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