The move heralds a new era in travel to and from the U.S. Aer Lingus and other EU and U.S. carriers may ultimately end up with total deregulation and the freedom to fly to any airport without restrictions or mandatory stopovers.
Currently, under a bilateral agreement between Ireland and the U.S., half of all trans-Atlantic flights must involve a Shannon stop to allow passengers to disembark.
Transport Minister Seamus Brennan said the end of the Shannon stopover was “inevitable” at some stage. It was a question of managing change now or having it forced on Ireland by the European Court of Justice, he said.
Those in favor of dropping the stopover say it will mean greater competition, cheaper air fares and more travel. Those opposed say it could have serious repercussions for Shannon’s hinterland, with fewer tourists and a drop in multinational investment.
For years the stopover has been a political hot potato and local interests have fought hard to keep it.
The current restrictions have meant that Aer Lingus can only travel to five U.S. destinations: New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Baltimore.
Welcoming the mandate to negotiate, Aer Lingus chief executive Willie Walsh claimed the decision would have far-reaching positive implications for tourism and business.
“Aer Lingus is currently prohibited from operating to new destinations in the U.S. beyond the cities it currently serves,” he said.
“U.S.-based airlines can fly from any point in the U.S. into Ireland. This is clearly anti-competitive and imposes an artificial constraint on growth in the air travel market between the U.S. and Ireland.”
Walsh said Aer Lingus currently carries 1 million passengers a year on its trans-Atlantic routes and is focused on doubling traffic into Ireland within three years if there is a new bilateral deal. The airline makes 65 percent of its profits on flights to and from the U.S.
“We have pledged that once there is change in the bilateral allowing us to fly to more destinations in the U.S., we will immediately open two new U.S. gateways. Within six months we would open a further two gateways, almost doubling the number of U.S. cities we serve.”
Aer Lingus believes there are large untapped markets of potential Irish tourists in other cities.
If there was agreement within the next six to eight weeks, Walsh said, the first two new destinations would be gateways in Florida and California starting in October. He told RTE that beginning next spring the airline would fly to two additional destinations. There could also be trans-Atlantic flights from Cork.
However, Transport Minister Seamus Brennan said the negotiations on a new deal could take years. He said it was a question of Shannon preparing for the change and making sure it had more business rather than less.
“I won’t, at the end of the day, agree to any changes unless I am absolutely satisfied that we will have an equal or similar amount of aviation business coming in and out of Shannon to what we have today,” he said. “Aer Lingus needs to consider what I am saying and see what they can do about that.”
The move is being strongly opposed by Fine Gael, local business and tourism businesses in the Midwest and trade unions who say it threatens thousands of jobs.
Opponents say the stopover was one of the few instruments of real effective regional policy and was vital to the economic health of the region. Without scheduled flights U.S. companies and tourists would bypass the area.