PEOPLE power is what we need to muster up in order to fight to ensure that Cork Airport is kept viable, especially in the light of all sorts of uncertainties being peddled about it. There are threats to its future on many fronts and passenger numbers are suffering as airlines have been steadily reducing the choice and frequency of routes from Cork, with Ryanair in particular seemingly better disposed towards the now independently-owned Shannon Airport.
In order to fly to an increasing amount of destinations, it is becoming more and more the case that Cork people have to go to Dublin and other airports. It is widely acknowledged that Cork Airport, under the control of the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and with the millstone of the huge debt owed on the over-large new terminal around its neck, has little chance of attracting the type of business it needs to ensure a prosperous future.
Instead, it is fighting a constant rearguard battle just for survival and the latest threat is the loss of Heathrow landing slots that could, in time, result from the possible sale of Aer Lingus to British Airways’ parent company IAG. The Cork-Heathrow route accounts for almost a fifth of all the two million passengers that use Cork Airport annually and a fifth of them, in turn, go to Heathrow to catch onward flights to other parts of the world.
The fact that one lands where there is a direct London Underground service into the city centre, or one can take the Heathrow Express, means that business people can generally get what they need to do there done in a day trip. A Cork Chamber business air travel survey last year found that Heathrow is the most-used hub airport by almost two-thirds of businesses in Cork.
Because we don’t have direct flights from Cork to the United States, the significance of a direct link to Heathrow for onward connections is even greater, as it is easier for some than driving to Dublin or Shannon Airports to get flights to the US. Cork must be one of the few second cities anywhere not to have direct flights to the States and this seems ridiculous in the light of all the American companies operating in the greater Cork area.
Connectivity is not only important for the people of the south western region, but also for business people and tourists coming here. If Cork’s air-connectivity diminishes any further, it will put off businesses setting up here in the future, starving the region of investment and jobs.
The surge in tourism numbers, especially over the past two years, could be set back badly by any further losses in air-connectivity with Cork, especially with no sea ferry crossing currently between the south west and the UK. The airport is pivotal to so much economic activity, but we seem to take it for granted.
In making its bid for Aer Lingus, IAG was only prepared to guarantee that the 24 valuable Heathrow slots from Irish airports would be left in place for five years. After that, it is likely that they would be cherry picked by other airlines in the group and the connectivity of smaller airports such as Cork would be seriously compromised, thereby seriously impacting on business, industry and tourism and, ultimately, on employment.
The Oireachtas Committee on Transport, chaired by Mayo TD John O’Mahony, along the Interdepartmental Group which will be considering the sale of Aer Lingus, need to carefully investigate the negative impact it could have economically on Cork Airport and its wider hinterland and to ensure that both the country and its regions’ strategic interests are not undermined by it.
Meanwhile, with a general election due within the next twelve months, it is time for businesses and interest groups locally to step up lobbying of our politicians to have the shackles of the DAA on Cork Airport released and to find an equitable resolution to the debt that is weighing it down. Only with autonomy can it compete on the proverbial level playing field with the likes of Shannon Airport, which has stolen a march on us since gaining its independence from DAA.