OPINION: No guarantees on flights from Cork to the US

April 16th, 2018 12:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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WHAT a mess! Not too long ago, Fine Gael enthusiasts, led by MEP Deirdre Clune and supported by Cork’s commercially Good and Wise, crushed American trade union opposition to an air-link between the Real Capital and the United States.

American workers delayed the implementation of the proposed airline route by arguing that to allow Norwegian Air operate in the US would undermine wages and working conditions.

But, after the Trump administration gave the go-ahead, the future looked rosy for the company behind the proposal to connect Cork with Boston and New York, as it did for Cork Airport, the point of departure for the new routes.

What’s more, Ms Clune’s success was achieved in the teeth of resistance from Irish trade union leaders who supported their US comrades, arguing that the proposed American routes were ‘likely to do more harm than good as they would damage the quality of jobs and standards in the sector and not create a single new job in Ireland.’

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders agreed with the unions. He too was convinced Norwegian Airlines International was using the Irish connection as a flag of convenience in order to establish the minimum-wage outfit in the US.

Nonetheless, the unions caved in after Ms Clune and her Irish-American lobby secured the approval of Donald Trump. 


Shock and horror

But in the wake of last week’s announcement that Norwegian was abandoning its first and only winter service from Cork, the penny dropped that Sanders and the American unions had not been wrong in their evaluation of the aeronautical aspirations of Ms Clune and her Leeside chums.

To gasps of dismay, Norwegian shocked Cork with a statement that it could not guarantee that flights from Cork would return for the 2019 summer schedule, although bookings for this summer (2018) were ‘strong.’

Gone too was the airline’s pledge to launch a Cork-to-New York service. Cork Chamber, a long-time supporter of Ms Clune, expressed ‘disappointment’ that Norwegian was pulling out so speedily.  Its CEO, Conor Healy, was reported as saying that, with stabilisation in the market, Norwegian could have developed its year-round service from Cork, but ‘the withdrawal of the winter schedule had damaged that growth and stabilisation opportunity.’

 Labour TD, Seán Sherlock, took a different tack. He was tempted to see a deliberate deceptiveness in the Norwegian action and he hoped the airline would remain committed to Cork airport and not switch to another airport ‘down the line.’

Whatever about public disillusionment in Norwegian, it wasn’t long before a rumour was circulating that Cork had been ‘stitched up’ and that the airline never had much interest in promoting the Cork-Boston (Providence) route or, for that matter, the Cork-New York route. It was all an elaborate ploy, or a ‘Trojan Horse’, to get access to the much more lucrative Dublin-US passenger market. 


Dublin to benefit

Labour TD Alan Kelly, for instance, had been arguing for some time that Norwegian, Dublin and the DAA would be the eventual beneficiaries from acquiring the routes that originally had been promised to Cork Airport.  

He called for an inquiry into the way Cork was made to look ridiculous and why Norwegian suspended flights even though the airline carried 17,000 passengers on the Cork-Providence (Boston) route. He also wanted an explanation as to why the routes should be switched to Dublin, ‘which already had a staggering 21 daily services.’

The situation now, said Alan Kelly, is that Cork has ‘nothing at all, either to New York or Boston.’  He’s demanding that Norwegian’s chief executive should appear before the Oireachtas Transport Committee to explain ‘the debacle’ and why the airline abandoned the Cork connection so soon.

Kelly, to his credit, is asking the type of questions that our local MEP, Deirdre Clune, should be asking. Question is, why is she observing a sort of ‘mum’s the word’ attitude in regard to Norwegian?  Does she think that Cork people, in the city and county, are not concerned at the airline’s antics?


Heavy lifting

Nor is it without significance that Clune’s Leeside FG comrade, Senator Jerry Buttimer, leader of Seanad Éireann, has demanded that Norwegian’s chief executive should appear before the Oireachtas Transport Committee. He also wants the head of the Dublin Airport Authority to provide information to the Committee.

This is what Buttimer gloomily said (as reported in De Paper) about the herculean efforts of the Cork lobby to obtain a US licence on behalf of Norwegian: ‘It was stakeholders in Cork that did all the heavy lifting. What Cork did, politically and commercially, to help Norwegian, it deserves better.’  

Nor is the public impressed that the Dublin Airport Authority is laughing all the way to the bank with 86% of the market, up from 81% five years ago, while Cork’s market share is struggling despite the airport’s hard work to build-up trade.  

Ironically, at a conference last year to discuss the implications of Brexit for regional airports, Our Deirdre complained that secondary airports in rural Ireland were being largely ignored. She advocated a government shift in focus, away from Dublin Airport and more on ‘balanced regional growth to secondary airports.’

To which this scribe says that Ms Clune MEP now has a very good reason for energetically promoting ‘secondary airports’ such as Cork. But does her boss, Vlad, listen to her?  For that matter, after this catastrophe will anyone bother in the future to listen to her?


Unanswered question

Because in relation to Norwegian, her explanations to the large support base that voted her onto the Brussels gravy train have not been clear, a fact that also is apparent in her comments to The Southern Star where she says: ‘I have been in touch with the airport (Cork) and I know they are working to try and influence this. The public must get behind the service and support Cork Airport on this matter.’  

Considering the amount of time and effort the MEP put into the Boston / New York project, and that FG politicos can be tediously wordy and long-winded, did her very brief comment indicate that she was sick of the controversy? That she has thrown her hat at it?  

For instance, can Ms Clune enlighten us on the best way of ‘getting behind the service’ when neither the airline nor she can guarantee that there will be a Cork-Providence (Boston) service next year? 

Consequently, we hope the reader will forgive us if we confess to being flummoxed by Ms Clune’s message to this newspaper. Which is not to say that we’re unimpressed by her courage in adversity, or the fact that she took the blow of cruel disappointment so bravely on the chin!  

But the question remains: what was she talking about?

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