By Ray O’Hanlon
The status of Shannon as a trans-Atlantic airport is a hardy reliable in Irish general election campaigns.
With a little over two weeks to polling day, politicians are talking tough again about the airport’s future.
The airlines, however, are not thinking in terms of votes. Delta, for one, has indicated that it would rather give Shannon the skip, at least most of the time.
And maybe all of the time.
In the post-9/11 world of air travel, passenger numbers and bottom lines count for more than voter preferences.
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And those working at the County Clare airport don’t feel especially confident that the other current trans-Atlantic carriers serving Ireland take a view any different from Delta’s.
During a campaign visit to Clare last week, outgoing Fianna F_il Minister for Public Enterprise, Mary O’Rourke, backed the current policy of one trans-Atlantic flight to Shannon for every flight to Dublin.
Delta Airlines has requested unspecified “relief” from this policy which has been in effect since the last round of U.S.-Irish bilateral air treaty negotiations reached a conclusion in 1993.
Prior to that year, all trans-Atlantic flights had to first land at Shannon before continuing on to Dublin.
The Irish government has been coming under increasing pressure from airlines, the European Union and the U.S. to embrace a so-called “Open Skies” policy, one that would allow airlines to follow strict market forces and choose where their flights land.
During her Clare visit, O’Rourke, who was accompanied by arts minister and local TD Sile de Valera, apparently rebuffed the view of the “Open Skies” lobby.
The Irish Times reported her as saying that other EU member states had airports that amounted to “pet projects.”
Shannon’s workforce, and those who see it as a logical end to a trans-Atlantic flight, would probably feel more secure in their beds if Shannon was held up as something more than a pet project by a minister who will likely have responsibilities for other matters after the May 17 vote.
Dermot Walsh, media advisor to SIGNAL, the lobby group representing Shannon’s workers, is not especially comforted by O’Rourke’s bold words.
The status of Shannon, will, he said, be a hot item on the plate of whatever party, or parties, form the next Irish government.
And it will only become hotter when the bilateral treaty comes up for renegotiation next year.
Walsh sees Shannon as a kind of Maginot Line against the desires of big airlines not to give just Shannon a miss, but indeed all of Ireland.
By big airlines Walsh means not just Delta and Continental — both of which presently fly to Ireland — but also United and British Airways, who don’t but who might see the Irish market as a way of filling surplus seats on trans-Atlantic flights to Britain.
“The end of Shannon as a trans-Atlantic destination is just a steppingstone to no trans-Atlantic flights into and out of Ireland at all,” Walsh said.
“Should Shannon go, all flights will eventually just go to Britain with feeder services back into Ireland.”
Such a scenario, he argued, would follow after the sale by the Irish government of Aer Lingus, probably, in Walsh’s view, to British Airways.
“Backtracking from Britain has already been clearly evident in recent years because of lower fares to British airports. The irony is that Shannon is not only defending its own status, but also that of Dublin Airport,” Walsh said.