Free Cork Airport from ‘dead hand’

There is an urgent need to free Cork Airport from the dead hand of Dublin.

So what’s happening at Cork Airport? Passenger numbers are down and still heading south. Dublin on the other hand is growing. More interestingly, Shannon Airport is also booming.

It’s a bit of a turnaround. Over the last decade traffic through Shannon had been decreasing given the changing nature of air travel and the advent of really long single-leg flights. It was losing flights and destinations and was in real bother. It was felt at times that without the support of the US troop transporters making stop-offs at Shannon the airport would be on its knees.

Obviously the folk around Shannon did their home-work and lobbied all and sundry to ensure its survival. Well it’s worked and it looks like it’s going to have a thriving future. Things could have been so different.

Cork Airport should be booming too but for government reneging on its commitment to free the airport from the clutches of the Dublin Airport Authority, now called daa to reflect its wider business role and to make it seem more inclusive.

Cork Airport is suffering from an architecturally attractive but OTT arrivals and departures building that was conceived and built by people who did not have to worry about where the money came from, during the boom years and cost much more than it should.

So Cork is saddled with a debt of €110 million plus the rest, together with a hefty annual interest bill. Its ability to be competitive is seriously limited given the level of outgoings. Indeed, as Joe Gill said back in August, Cork Airport is set for a very pedestrian future until the debt issue is resolved.

Not that long ago government committed to making Cork Airport relatively debt-free of the horrendous expenditure foisted on it by the DAA. It also committed to letting all three airports get out from under the umbrella of the DAA and to set about making their own markets. However, it was not to be, somebody somewhere decided otherwise. Cork was to remain in the suffocating embrace of the DAA and now the daa. Shannon escaped and its success thus far has been exemplary.

We could get really parochial and suggest that it was personal, that Cork had not genuflected properly in front of the right people and had to pay the price. Perhaps there was somebody waiting in the long grass and was looking for payback. It might just be, of course, that daa just has too many balls in the year, hasn’t got the stomach or the skills to improve Cork Airport’s future, or perhaps it simply does not see Cork Airport as a priority.

Whatever, Cork Airport has not been given a fair shake, and while still not haemorrhaging, it’s more like a slow puncture where airlines are choosing to pull out and flights to different destinations are being lost.

If this is national policy it’s a load of cobblers. If we’ve learned anything over the last 20 or 30 years it’s that increased competition can grow business as more people are attracted by more competitive pricing and as the competing locations pursue greater and greater innovation to differentiate themselves.

Recently the US Ambassador said that Shannon plays a key role in supporting US investment across the west of Ireland. That is nothing new. Development agencies, business lobbies and businesses have been telling us for a long time that without airline connectivity it will become increasingly difficult to attract foreign direct investment and outward looking companies whose focus is on business in all four corners of the world. Without being able to move easily between a company’s different plants or get to customers quickly without transiting through multiple airports, Cork is at a major loss.

Now Shannon is full of confidence and growing rapidly. Cork is still stuck to a monolith of semi-state lethargy and bias. Michael O’Leary said the other day that Cork needs to be more competitive.

Freed from the shackles of the daa and this massive debt, it can make decisions for itself.

It can become competitive and serve not just the residents of the south west but the citizens of Ireland as a whole.

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