THE much-awaited National Aviation Policy launched by the government last month had relatively little to say about Cork Airport.
Although the document dealt in very general terms with Irish aviation strategy, and didn’t set out to analyse issues or policy for individual airports, there was a mere 225 words devoted to the country’s second busiest airport, under the heading ‘Cork Airport’.
Some critics of current airport policy who spoke to The Southern Star said the fact that the airport was so poorly represented – in a document spanning 96 pages – was indicative of the lack of enthusiasm the Dublin-based DAA has shown for its southern cousin.
And with Shannon now out of the DAA’s grasp – it gained independence in 2013 – Cork is very much the poor relation to a Dublin facility that appears to be marching ahead at a huge rate – with talk of a new runway and rail link.
Meanwhile, passenger numbers in Cork are set to fall once again this year, thought management are predicting a return to growth in 2016.
But with a decision on whether Cork will remain under DAA control, or go it alone, pushed out until 2019 at the earliest, there is a feeling among some Cork business people of an attitude of ‘kicking the can down the road’ – a reluctance to make the hard decisions anytime soon.
A group of very prominent West Cork business leaders obviously felt strongly enough to put pen to paper this week, and stress the importance of the airport to the region, and how vital it is, that a ‘clear strategy’ is evident from management.
But clear strategies have not been very evident at the Kinsale Road complex in the past.
The much talked-about Cork Land Use and Transportation Study (Luts) plan, which guided development in the Cork area from 1978 to 2000, gave very little attention to Cork Airport. The follow-up CASP (Cork Area Strategic Plan, 2001-2020) paid similar lip-service to the facility, citing the importance of its ‘development and expansion’ which, it said, was ‘crucial to the development and future prosperity of Cork’.
‘Continued improvements in air links and ease of access to the UK and European hubs is essential to fostering and promoting the Cork region,’ it went on, ‘as a high quality destination for inward investment and tourism’, but offered no real suggestions as to how to achieve this.
The NAP is Ireland’s first national aviation policy and offered a real opportunity this year for the government to outline a clear and exciting approach to developing the country’s second busiest airport.
But yet again, Dublin stole the limelight and Cork’s future appears to have been put on the long finger. Although, some commentators are quick to point out that four years is a very short period of time in aviation – and say that vested interests need to be making their ideas and suggestions known now.
Last week, the airport’s managing director Niall MacCarthy told the Southern Star it was ‘too soon’ to talk about a post-2019 Cork Airport.
He said he was ‘optimistic’ that more good news was on the way soon for the facility.
And Cork Airport management has made its feelings about negative publicity very well known.
Southern Star reader Siobhan McCarthy set up a ‘Save Cork Airport’ Facebook page around this time last year, worried after watching a number of routes being cancelled in the previous months, specifically to Nice and Lisbon.
Such was the impact of her campaign that within a few hours of setting up the page, she had several thousand ‘likes’, and a meeting with airport management.
But after Niall MacCarthy said such an approach was ‘unhelpful’, Siobhan decided to shut down the page. She told the Star she was happy the page had made an impact, and now she was leaving the campaign to be picked up by someone else.
Another Facebook member has since set up a Support Cork Airport page which, it is believed, is seen as much more agreeable to management. It is certainly a lot less embarrassing for the airport, which is at pains to stress the good news of recent months, with several more routes being added towards the end of this year, or next spring.
But what’s to become of the airport after 2019?
The NAP states that Government policy is that, in four years’ time, Cork Airport could separate from the remainder of the DAA ‘should this make financial sense for the airport and for the DAA’.
Is this a thinly veiled threat that the airport must get its act in order if it wants to remain under the wing of the DAA? Or should it be looked upon as a wonderful opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a now-independent Shannon, which grew traffic by 5% in May and is looking at a €21m redevelopment of its business park?
It also opens Cork up to the possibility of a public private partnership (PPP) option, or a total sell-off.
But a former attempt at a PPP did not meet with much success. In 1999, The Irish Times reported that a consortium of Cork businessmen attempted to put together a deal involving local business figures, Cork local authorities and airport staff and management, to buy Cork Airport. The consortium – headed by Rosscarbery native Gerry Wycherley and accountant Niall Welch – spent many months trying to get their plan accepted but eventually it fell through.
Gerry is still heavily involved in the Cork Airport business park, but sources say he would not be interested in a renewed bid in 2019.
Speaking to the Southern Star last week, the successful entrepreneur said he was still passionate about the airport, however. ‘We need a Cork-driven policy, not driven by the DAA,’ he said.
‘The airport’s track record is not good. The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over, and getting the same result. If something’s not working, you change it. There seems to be an attitude at the airport of ‘we are doing fine’, but what is their definition of fine? Passenger numbers are not falling in Dublin or Shannon. Cork is going backwards while the rest are going forwards.’
And he said that putting a decision off until 2019 ‘certainly is’ kicking it down the road. ‘The ball is in the court of the Cork policy makers now and the Cork people. But we need some new kids on the block. We need new ideas.’