Tuesday 12 November 2019

Let's stay grounded by keeping hold on Aer Lingus in these times of turbulence

An Aer Lingus plane taxis before take off at Dublin airport. Reuters
An Aer Lingus plane taxis before take off at Dublin airport. Reuters

Gerard O’Regan

'It's an ill-advised project, far distant from any sizable town, high on a foggy and boggy hill?''

This was the plaintive cry of one particular critic back in the early 1980s, when a maverick Catholic priest came up with what was widely regarded as a fairly hare-brained idea.

Fr James Horan may understandably have been more concerned with God rather than Mammon - but he was determined there should be an international air link to one of the most popular places of religious pilgrimage in Ireland.

All sorts of machinations and skulduggery were involved. The battle was to try and persuade the Charles Haughey-led government of the time to stump up what was essentially taxpayers' money for what many aviation experts regarded as a truly bizarre project that made no economic sense.

Yet what is now often dubbed 'Knock International Airport' caters for over 700,000 passengers a year - proof positive of its importance and relevance for one of the more isolated regions in Ireland.

There is one moral to this particular aeronautical tale - predicting the future in many areas of life is high risk, but in the rapidly changing airline business it's especially fraught.

On the other hand, the current debate about the possible sale of the State-owned piece of Aer Lingus is as much about the heart as it is about the head. It is as much about emotion as it is about reason. Many, who in other circumstances would argue the free market should have its way, are somewhat uneasy on this occasion.

We are an island nation, and to resort to that overused buzzword of our times "connectivity'' is important. Proportionately, the Irish, compared to, say, the French, are much more of a travelling people, fuelled by generations of emigration.

Air travel is obviously a key international linkage system for the modern age, and something deep in the national consciousness should warn us not to leave ourselves over-dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Aer Lingus, in common with other international airlines, has had its many traumas over the last decade. Both management and staff have had to accept that the airline could not remain immune from what was happening in the wider world. This buffeting from the inevitability of change will only get even more challenging in the years ahead.

There are also some grim realities reflected in what has happened to other well-known airline brands. Going it alone will certainly become even more challenging for what we believe to be our national airline, as large conglomorates try to muscle smaller operators out of the way. It is for this reason Sabena, the Belgian national airline, fell by the wayside some years ago, and that Air France and KLM fused operations, as did Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines.

One remarkable aviation statistic which has again come to the fore is that the Dublin-London air route remains one of the busiest in the world. The 70-minute flight was taken by 3.5 million passengers in 2013; this meant it dramatically dwarfed the high-profile London to New York link with 2.7 million.

The figures speak for themselves, and competitively priced ease of access on this connection with London is an artery for Irish life which must be protected at all costs. Therefore, there has been justifiable focus on the multi-million euro "landing slots'' Aer Lingus controls in Heathrow airport.

As one expert put it, the airline is "sitting on a gold mine'', given that buying a landing and take-off slot in the airport currently costs between €33m and €40m. The company owns 23 such slots at the London hub, and they are worth between €770m and €925m.

When the Irish government floated the company in 2007, the State not only kept its 25.1pc holding, but wisely retained a veto over the sale of any of these slots. Ireland Inc should let these go at its peril. However, some experts insist that if the company was part of a much bigger operation, greater use could be made of this high value facility.

During the decades when it enjoyed a near monopoly in this country, there was a kind of symbiotic and emotional link between Aer Lingus and many Irish people. Those planes emblazoned with a shamrock, gliding towards some distant skyline, sent a tremor, particularly in those times when air travel was much more exotic than it is now. The airline had come a long way from 1936, and those nervous early days during the Second World War, when incidental and furtive flights to Liverpool and Manchester was as much as it could muster.

And maybe there is also another piece of historical symbolism when harking back to those war years, and the fact Ireland got control of the ''Treaty Ports'' at Cobh, Berehaven and Lough Swilly, just before hostilities broke out. If that had not happened we may well have been unwittingly dragged into the great conflagration which was to follow.

The old maxim of having control of one's own destiny in times of trouble cannot be forgotten. Self-seeking politicians can always mire up a debate such as this. But the State should ensure all our fingers remain on the tip of that comforting Aer Lingus shamrock, at least for now. Then let us wait and see what an uncertain future will bring.

Irish Independent

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