Following talks in Washington between Irish Transport Minister Martin Cullen and U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the Irish side announced what it described as “transitional arrangements” that would form part of a broader “Open Skies” agreement between the European Union and the U.S.
These transitional arrangements will come in for their hard landing in April 2008.
From that point the “Shannon Stopover” will be history.
Cullen described the Ireland/U.S. deal as a “special agreement” and said Ireland was the only EU country to secure such “transitional arrangements” in the proposed EU-U.S. deal, the final details of which are being hammered out in Washington this week after years of painstaking negotiations.
Cullen, according a statement issued by his department, had “insisted” that a transitional arrangement for Shannon be included in the Open Skies deal.
“I made it clear that Ireland supported an EU/U.S. agreement, but that this support was contingent on achieving an appropriate transitional arrangement for Shannon airport.
“I emphasized the importance of a good transition for Shannon, and placed this in the context of wider Ireland-U.S. relations,” Cullen said.
The U.S. has been cool to the idea of giving Shannon a special cushion before it is fully exposed to a deregulated Open Skies policy, one in which airlines can freely choose destination cities.
But after the bilateral talks the two sides came up with a formula that will mean no change in the Shannon stopover arrangement until November 2006.
This will mean that every U.S. flight into Dublin will continue to be matched over the next 12 months by a corresponding “stopover” landing in Shannon.
However, during the transitional period — running from November 2006 to April, 2008 — the ratio of Dublin/Shannon passenger flights will move from 1:1 to 3:1.
Under this plan, a U.S. carrier will only have to fly once to the County Clare airport for every three flights to the Irish capital.
Meanwhile, there will be no Shannon stop requirement for transatlantic cargo flights from November 2006.
During the transitional period, Aer Lingus, which is still almost wholly owned by the Irish state, will be allowed land at three new U.S. cities in addition to the four (New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles) already being served.
No announcement has been made as to which cities might be chosen but there has been speculation in the past pointing variously to Philadelphia, San Francisco, Orlando and a Texas destination, possibly Houston or Dallas-Fort Worth.
The Dublin/Washington deal envisages full Open Skies between Ireland and the U.S. from April 2008 – in the context of the broader EU/U.S. treaty.
The entire question of Shannon’s status and future has been a political hot potato for years.
With that in mind it was not surprising that Cullen’s announcement contained a degree of salve for Shannon boosters.
Cullen, the Irish statement said, “sought and obtained assurances from Aer Lingus that, in the context of a level playing field between the airline and its competitors, it will maintain the current level of transatlantic traffic (circa 400,000 passengers a year) with regular year-round scheduled services between Shannon and Boston and New York.”
And the minister would move to prepare an “economic and tourism development plan” to ensure that Shannon Airport “sustains and grows” transatlantic air services.
“This was a good deal, hard-won, which gives Shannon a good opportunity to prepare for the arrival of Open Skies,” Cullen claimed.
“It also provides Aer Lingus with an opportunity to fly to three new destinations in the U.S. from 2006. This will enable the company to develop its transatlantic route structure in the run up to Open Skies, open new markets for Irish tourism, offer greater choice to consumers and help grow jobs in Ireland,” Cullen added.
The overarching Open Skies treaty will replace a hodgepodge of bilateral deals linking the U.S. with various EU countries, a situation ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice a couple of years ago.
In addition to greater freedom of destination choice for airlines, Open Skies also allows for the possibility of an airline such as Aer Lingus to fly to the U.S. from a signatory country other than its national base.