Irish airports can’t miss out on lift from new tech

Dublin airport

Passenger numbers at Dublin airport have recovered to levels not seen since before the global financial crisis. 

That performance is a key indicator of what is actually happening inside the economy but it also reflects the changing shape of the world around us.

Consider some of the elements driving the 15% increase in passenger volume during the first half of 2015. 

Airlines from the Gulf have played a key part in expanding the scale of long-haul services for both Dublin and Ireland.

Instead of being dependent on hubs in London, Paris, Frankfurt, or Amsterdam to travel, the world airlines based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are now offering high- frequency daily alternatives for customers. 

Both Emirates and Etihad are offering double daily flights on large wide body aircraft that we could have only imagined 10 or 20 years ago.

The emergence of these new breed of carriers has brought competition not just in price but also in service to the legacy carriers in both Europe and North America.

This shift in the competitive landscape is being facilitated by new technology in aircraft that can fly long distances on two engines. The latest example of this development is the service provided by Ethiopian Airlines. 

Its brand new Boeing 787s provide the economics to fly from Addis Ababa to Dublin and onwards to Los Angeles, delivering what is termed a “long, thin route” that creates Ireland’s first scheduled flights in to the heart of Africa.

Facing west, a service has been created in the past year by Canadian airline Westjet connecting Newfoundland with Ireland. 

That too is an innovative use of technology as the aircraft used is a narrow body Boeing 737 which could not have made that trip 20 years ago. 

By operating a smaller aircraft, Westjet is able to make the service work despite carrying a lower number of passengers.

Routes of this type will only become more common as both Airbus and Boeing deliver new generation aircraft. Airbus starts producing the A320neo this year. 

This is the latest version of the plane used by Aer Lingus on short-haul routes but it will have extended range and sharply lower fuel costs. 

Equipped with such a machine, airlines will be able to offer point-to-point services from Irish airports to destinations in every direction. Boeing, with the MAX version of the 737 that is scheduled for 2018, will do the same.

The chief executive of Norwegian Air Shuttle, which has ordered a number of MAX aircraft, is already touting the idea of new services between Europe and North America on the aircraft, which are smaller than those that typically travel the Atlantic each day.

To optimise the benefits of these shifting markets, Ireland must plan imaginatively for the future. I noticed Dublin Airport is seeking plans to adapt the facility to accommodate the giant double-decker Airbus A380. 

That plane is already serving airports like Manchester and Birmingham so it is right to get it operating to Dublin too. The thorny issue of a new runway at Dublin will have to be grasped as well. 

As an island nation, our economic dependence on air travel is over-indexed compared to other nations. Accordingly adding a new runway at Dublin is critical to supporting our economy as the next decade unfolds.

Shannon and Cork should be working hard to make their facilities fit for purpose to accommodate the new generation of aircraft and airlines. 

It is interesting that while Dublin is already starting to test the capacity of its existing runways and terminals, Cork and Shannon have huge headroom to grow. 

If our economy continues on the trajectory evident in 2015, both may be on an upward path if they combine cost competitiveness and facility management to attract more services.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking at Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.


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