Longer runway the key issue

WITH its runway jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, the approach to Sligo Airport is one of the most picturesque (and for nervous types, most hair-raising) locations of any Irish airport.

Alas, scenery is not a significant attribute for ensuring the continuing viability of the state’s smallest airport, which is located 8km outside Sligo town in Strandhill.

Regularly identified as the most vulnerable of all Ireland’s regional airports, Sligo’s airport manager Joe Corcoran and his staff could be forgiven for adopting a fatalistic attitude in the face of such negativity.

“There is no immediate threat,” laughs Corcoran, who remains quietly upbeat about Sligo’s commercial future, although he readily acknowledges the harsh reality of the current economic situation and its potential impact on smaller regional airports.

Despite its lowly status, accounting for a little more than 0.1% of all air passengers here last year, Sligo Airport grew its passenger traffic by almost 30% in 2007, albeit from an admittedly low base.

A total of 44,500 passengers used Sligo last year. To place such a figure in perspective, this annual figure is about 20,000 fewer than the average number of people passing through Dublin Airport each day.

Just two regular services operate from the airport with Aer Arann flying to Dublin twice daily and Manchester four times a week.

However, it remains more dependent than any other regional airport on the subsidised PSO service with over 83% of its traffic coming from the Dublin route. On a more positive note, PSO passengers account for just 55% of the airport’s income.

Of more concern is the fact that Sligo’s relative proximity to the capital through improved road and rail services will almost certainly see Government funding for the route decline sharply in 2011 due to new rules governing routes that provide alternative bus and train connections within a three-hour journey time.

But the airport’s most pressing concern is the proposed extension of the runway to provide safety areas at both ends as Sligo has been warned by the Irish Aviation Authority that it does not meet current international safety standards.

The problem caused by the lack of safety areas was highlighted in 2003 when a Fokker aircraft carrying passengers including the band, Aslan, overshot the runway with its nose ending up tilted into the ocean.

Although it has not been given a deadline by the IAA to rectify this, Sligo knows that its future is in no small part contingent on extending the runway by almost 260 metres at its eastern end into Dorrins Strand in Sligo Bay in conjunction with improvements to navigational aids.

However, the plan has been met by some strong local opposition led by the Dorrins and Cummeen Strand Conservation Group, which claims the extension will cause environmental damage to a safe habitat for wintering Brent geese, wipe out the local shellfish industry and impede the access of local residents to nearby Coney Island.

A total of 72 objections have been made to Sligo County Council against the planning application for the runway extension.

While Transport Minister, Noel Dempsey, recently announced large-scale cutbacks to the funding of capital projects for regional airports, it appears unlikely the €8.5m earmarked for Sligo is under serious threat as its requirement is for vital safety work.

A connection with one of the London airports would be a huge attraction. However, Corcoran admits that the current problems with the runway and navigational aids makes it difficult for Sligo to attract new services.

“We are facing huge challenges. No airline is untouched by the current climate,” he adds, pointing out that traffic is down 4% so far this year.

However, he remains hugely proud of Sligo’s record to date and is a passionate champion of the airport’s significance for the north-west. He also takes care to mention Sligo is the location for an Irish coastguard helicopter that provides a rescue service covering a vast area from Malin Head to south of Clew Bay.

“The airport plays a crucial role in the prosperity of the region,” says Corcoran.

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