Ryanair chief acting like the boy who owns the ball

Two airports find themselves pawns in Ryanair’s battle, writes Donal Hickey

WHO does Michael O’Leary think he is? There’s no end to the lengths to which the Ryanair boss is prepared to go in his dogged efforts to bully the Government into scrapping the tourist airline tax – even to the point of putting the survival of Shannon and Kerry airports on the line.

Both airports find themselves in the unenviable position of being grossly over-dependent on Ryanair and being used as pawns in its battle with the Government, something Ryanair is prepared to milk for all it is worth.

Ryanair is the only airline providing services to and from Kerry, a monopoly that puts the airline in an extremely strong position, but poses serious questions for the future of this airport unless it attracts other competing airlines.

Were O’Leary to pull the plug completely in the morning, Kerry Airport, seen as essential for the economy of the peripheral south-west, would be faced with likely closure – and a belated political clamour for other airlines to come to the rescue.

The Kerry/Dublin route is an essential service, giving connections to onward destinations, but Ryanair yesterday announced it will cut its daily Kerry to Dublin schedule from three to one return flight, from October 31.

Again, Government taxes and charges and a claim that Transport Minister Noel Dempsey is not honouring an agreement under the Public Service Obligation (PSO) – a Government subsidy to provide a service to regional airports – are the reasons offered by Ryanair.

Anyone who has been to Shannon Airport in the past year, or so, will have noticed how quiet the place has become.

In addition to the recent Ryanair announcements of cuts, summer services to destinations such as Malaga, Nantes and Mallorca have also gone – to be compounded by a reduction in transatlantic services from Shannon this winter.

What was once a bustling airport has slowed and the first thing that strikes you is the absence of people around Shannon. Not very much is happening.

This is all due to the remarkable downward plunge in Shannon’s flight schedule over the past year – from 2.7 million passengers, in 2009, to 1.6 million, this year.

You don’t have to be a top Harvard economics professor to know that any business that loses more than a third of its customers in such a short time is in a major spot of bother.

Calls for a new business/marketing plan to revive the ailing Shannon airport have coincided with Ryanair cutting its flights from the facility this winter by 21%.

Michael O’Leary has blamed the “treble whammy” of Shannon’s high costs, its refusal to extend Ryanair’s five-year base deal and the €10 tourist tax for the decision.

In typical fashion, O’Leary fulfilled his threat to cut services when his demands were not met. Give Shannon Wings – a group campaigning to revive the airport’s fortunes – says Ryanair has cut its Shannon routes from 35 to six in two years.

Clare councillor Patricia McCarthy put her finger on it when she remarked Shannon had “put all its eggs in one basket” by relying too much on Ryanair and was now suffering, in consequence.

Shannon Airport should have gone for a better mix of charter and low-cost flights, she ruefully remarked.

At Kerry Airport, passenger numbers dropped by 11% to 372,000, last year, but are not expected to fall more than 4% this year, the airport board’s AGM was told in July.

While the recession has been largely blamed for the drop, the chairman of the board, Denis Cregan, made a plea for the continuation of the Kerry to Dublin route, which he described as the raison d’etre of Kerry Airport, into the future.

Volumes have dropped by as much as 40% on some of the Kerry/Dublin flights this year, the meeting was told.

However, the fall in passenger numbers on the route was attributed by the board to unsuitable timing and a fall in frequency of flights provided by Ryanair which receives €1.7m annually for providing flights between Kerry and Dublin.

The airport is hugely dependent on subsidies (PSO) but Mr Cregan voiced concerns about the future of state financial support, in the light of a recommendation by An Bord Snip Nua to axe the PSO.

Meanwhile, Michael O’Leary continues to act like the boy who owns the ball being played in the street match – he sulks and walks away with the ball when he doesn’t get to score all the goals himself.


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