A cloud of doubt hangs over the reopening of Ryanair’s base at Cork Airport this year, the airline has told its staff.
In a memo to pilots and cabin crew of its Cork base, which closed temporarily last October, the airline’s ‘people director’, Darrell Hughes, said they can’t confirm yet if the base will open this winter season - and that means before March 2022.
The airport is due to close for 10-weeks - from September 10 to November 22 - for a multi-million runway upgrade, and reopen in time for what it’s hoped will be a busy Christmas period.
But Ryanair, the airport's biggest customer pre-pandemic, has now said that it can’t commit to a base reopening this year pending the outcome of commercial talks with the airport.
It has also lashed out at the government’s approach to managing the pandemic, accusing it of putting the aviation industry, and the thousands of jobs in the sector, at risk.
Mr Hughes said the aviation industry here continues to be decimated by the government’s “lack of a recovery plan” and its “shortsighted focus on pointless and unworkable travel restrictions and quarantines”.
“The slow vaccine rollout in Ireland continues to put jobs and critical air infrastructure links at risk.
“As you know we temporarily ceased base operations at Cork last October due to Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions and we have been unable to plan for reopening for this summer season due to the runway works and lack of a workable commercial agreement with Cork Airport.
“While we have been trying to negotiate with Cork Airport management on a deal to secure the reopening of the base - similar to that already in Shannon - unfortunately the uncertainty over the reopening days of the base remains.
“At this stage we are unable to confirm if the base will be open this winter that is before March 2022.
"We are truly sorry to be delivering news of further uncertainty for our Cork crew.
A spokesman for Cork Airport said they have devised two new traffic incentive schemes - one to incentivise passenger traffic and one to incentivise the reestablishment of bases - to help rebuild the airport’s route network post-pandemic.
It is understood that talks with the various airline customers on these schemes have been ongoing for several months.
Before the pandemic, Cork Airport had nine airline customers operating 52 scheduled routes.
Ryanair was its biggest customer - leapfrogging Aer Lingus into the top slot in 2019 when it carried some 1.14m passengers.
Pre-pandemic, Ryanair operated 24 routes while Aer Lingus operated 17 routes, and together, they carried more than 80% of the airport’s customers.
Today, Cork Airport has just two airlines, Aer Lingus and KLM, operating three scheduled flights a week on two routes - to London Heathrow and Amsterdam.
The airport is set to close to all scheduled fixed-wing operations for 10-weeks this autumn - from September 10 to November 22 - to facilitate a multi-million rebuild of its main runway, 16/34.
The pandemic, and subsequent collapse in airline traffic, prompted airport management to bring the work forward from 2022.
The main runway, designated 16/34, has been in operation since the airport opened in October 1961. Built at 1,883-metres long, it was extended by 300-metres in 1989, and was overlaid just once, in 1999. It is at the end of its operational life.
The upgrade work will involve a structural reconstruction of the main runway, an upgrading of aircraft ground lighting to energy efficient LEDs, the installation of runway edge and centreline lighting, the replacement of secondary cabling and transformers, the construction of a new electrical pit and duct system, upgrading of primary electrical circuits in place since the 1980s, and a new electricity substation to provide backup for the current substation.
Meanwhile, Willie Walsh, the head of global airline industry body International Air Transport Association (IATA), has hit out at the high cost of Covid-19 testing, accusing providers of profiteering from travel, and calling for the industry to challenge whether PCR tests are necessary.
"We're clearly seeing evidence of profiteering by people who have jumped on the testing bandwagon," said Mr Walsh, the former head of IAG, the conglomerate he put together to include British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and Vueling.
He said governments had mandated PCR tests and were then charging VAT on the cost of the testing, a scenario which he said needed to be challenged.
"The cost of testing should be significantly lower than it is. I think we've got to challenge whether PCR testing is necessary," he said.
PCR tests, the so-called gold standard test, can cost over €100.