Cork Airport and Covid-19: Charting a course through uncertain times

With its new runway in place, Cork Airport is "full steam ahead" to rise again from its Covid hit with strategies in place for if the pandemic continues, writes Eoin English.
Cork Airport and Covid-19: Charting a course through uncertain times

At the official opening of the newly reconstructed main runway at Cork Airport in November are (left to right): Cllr John Sheehan, deputising for the Lord Mayor of Cork; Bishop Fintan Gavin, Bishop of Cork & Ross; Bishop Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne & Ross, Church of Ireland; Basil Geoghegan, daa Chairman; Taoiseach Micheál Martin; Niall MacCarthy, Managing Director, Cork Airport; Hildegarde Naughton TD, Minister of State at the Department of Transport; Simon Coveney TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs; Michael McGrath TD, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; Dalton Philips, daa Group CEO; Cllr Seamus McGrath, deputising for the Mayor of the County of Cork; Gearoid Lohan, CEO, Colas Ireland Limited. Photo: Brian Lougheed

IF YOU compared his professional life over the last two years to a plane journey, it could well be described as a flight from hell.

Brian Gallagher enjoyed a smooth takeoff and a steady climb when he joined Cork Airport as its head of aviation and commercial business development in 2018 just as passenger numbers were rising after a decade of decline. There was strong passenger growth that year, running at around 8%, which saw the airport hit the 2.6m passenger mark.

Several airlines, including Ryanair, Aer Lingus, Air France, and Swiss Air had, just before his arrival, announced new routes for 2019, and the forecast was good.

“Before I joined, I thought ‘wow — this isn’t going to be easy, to come into this role and continue that trajectory’,” Mr Gallagher says.

“So the foundation for 2019 was solid and that year we were famously Ireland’s fastest-growing airport, and grew to 2.6m passengers.

“The airport was on the up and the question was how far, how high can it go.”

The head of aviation and commercial business at Cork Airport, Brian Gallagher: "August (2021) was a lot stronger than expected and the recovery in November has been strong too." Photo: Moya Nolan
The head of aviation and commercial business at Cork Airport, Brian Gallagher: "August (2021) was a lot stronger than expected and the recovery in November has been strong too." Photo: Moya Nolan

In hindsight, the question that should have been asked was how low could it go.

The airport went from eight scheduled airlines flying to over 50 routes, to just two airlines flying to two destinations in the space of a few weeks during the height of lockdown. The pandemic cost the airport 2m passengers in 2020.

Mr Gallagher must now lead the rebuilding and recovery of the airport’s decimated network. But with some €40m invested in the airport’s infrastructure during the pandemic — including a massive new runway rebuild — and, despite concerns about the new Covid variants, the airport is positioned well to recover.

Mr Gallagher recalls how he and his colleagues in the global aviation industry, along with everyone else, watched first with interest, then with growing concern, the reports in late 2019 emerging from China about a deadly new virus. A few
direct air routes from Dublin to Asia were suspended for that winter season in the firm belief that they’d resume in summer 2020.

2020

In Cork, Mr Gallagher and his team were still forecasting another strong year of growth in 2020, with forecasts that they’d hit the 2.8m passenger mark.

However, by the end of January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) had
declared a “public health emergency of international concern” and when Covid-19 hit Italy, Mr Gallagher knew Europe was in trouble.

On February 29, 2020, the first case of Covid was confirmed here, followed quickly by a second case, a woman who had travelled from Italy, prompting the Department of Foreign Affairs to advise against all non-essential travel to northern Italy.

By March 10, Ireland confirmed 10 new cases in a single day — the single largest daily jump at the time — to bring to 34 the total number of cases here.

That prompted Ryanair and Aer Lingus to suspend flights to and from Northern Italy, where 168 deaths were recorded in a single day.

Cork Airport runway under construction in late 2021. It was during the run-up to Christmas 2020 that airport bosses began to seriously consider fast-tracking the airport’s runway rebuild project, which had been pencilled in for 2022. Photo: Karol Kachmarsky
Cork Airport runway under construction in late 2021. It was during the run-up to Christmas 2020 that airport bosses began to seriously consider fast-tracking the airport’s runway rebuild project, which had been pencilled in for 2022. Photo: Karol Kachmarsky

Despite mounting concerns, the Cheltenham racing festival went ahead and, on March 11, WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and Ireland announced the first confirmed death of a person with Covid.

On March 12, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar ordered the closure of schools, colleges, and public places until March 29 at the earliest and, days later, pubs closed.

By March 27, Ireland was placed on full lockdown, which was extended until the end of April, with restrictions on international travel for non-essential reasons.

Traffic at Cork Airport collapsed, and passenger numbers fell off a cliff edge.

Mr Gallagher says few were able to predict how bad things might get.

“We were looking at projections that this might be three months, maybe five months, and the worst-case scenario was that we’d lose the summer 2020 season and we’d have a bumper winter,” he says.

“But it soon became clear to everyone that this was getting more serious than any of us had suspected.

I maintain that a company’s business development team must always maintain realistic optimism, not pessimism. My optimism has been crushed many times since Covid-19 hit.

As international travel ground to a halt, aviation industry analysts began gathering data to identify and understand the trends.

Several carriers, particularly those using the hub airports across Europe, retained flight frequency for a few weeks — some flew empty aircraft, the so-called ghost flights — just to retain their airport slots.

But it soon became clear that this just wasn’t sustainable and flight frequency fell and the industry effectively collapsed.

“We went from around 35 flights a day — between 10,000 to 15,000 passengers a day pre-Covid — to handling just 40 passengers on one day in April 2020,” Mr Gallagher says. “We handled 1,200 passengers across the whole month of April 2020 — that’s a 99% drop in the space of two weeks.

“That was when the market hit rock bottom for us. It was a complete global collapse — the first time it had ever happened. 

Nothing like 9/11 or the Gulf War. This was the biggest collapse in global aviation since World War Two.

“Growth is burnt into us. It’s in our genes. So there was an initial sense of shock and a sense of having to
dust yourself off and gather yourself back.”

But there were some upsides, he says.

“You got to do some maintenance around the terminals and we also handled some recovery flights.

“We had Air India and [Polish carrier] LOT Airlines flying into Cork to bring their citizens back and obviously the cargo flights skyrocketed. And airlines were trying to find places to park their aircraft so we had quite a number of Aer Lingus jets on the ground here at Cork Airport for quite some time — some of which remained parked here for pretty much a year.”

But even at the height of lockdown, Mr Gallagher said there was some hope that the industry would be allowed to open up for summer 2020. The government’s five-stage roadmap to ease Covid restrictions fuelled those hopes.

Day zero arrived on July 1, 2020, and international travel for non-essential reasons was permitted. Airlines added capacity back into the market. Aer Lingus and Ryanair continued flying to and from London and, while Air France and Swiss both restarted, and KLM launched a service in August 2020, national and international restrictions and increasing Covid cases globally weighed heavily on demand.

“There was a small subset of passengers who were going to fly one way or the other, for that holiday in Spain or whatever, but it was a very small subset and despite the best efforts — we had a little bit of traffic in July and August — it was tough work for airlines and airports,” says Mr Gallagher.

 A Ryanair Airbus A320 on the runway at Cork Airport. Ryanair continued flying to and from London in the summer of 2020. Photo: Larry Cummins
A Ryanair Airbus A320 on the runway at Cork Airport. Ryanair continued flying to and from London in the summer of 2020. Photo: Larry Cummins

“The airlines were flying jets with a third of the seats occupied or less. Never in the history of Irish airports have we seen loads like that.”

Despite very low fares, none of the airlines managed to recover measurable traffic, he says. Then came
Ryanair’s announcement that it was closing its Cork base from October 2020 for the winter and the introduction of another level 5 six-week lockdown from late
October until December 1.

“That really brought a sense of doom and gloom to the situation. The traffic really fell off a cliff after September,” Mr Gallagher says.

“We were seeing some bright sparks for the month of December because there was this feeling that there were a lot of people abroad who wanted to get home — they hadn’t been home in a year or two because of Covid and this was the period that people were going to start travelling back.

“But, within the first couple of days of December, although we started seeing nice loads on flights, there was the emergence of the Alpha variant in Britain and suddenly we started seeing borders close across Europe, we started seeing restrictions on UK passengers coming in, and we realised that this was another false dawn and, within a few days, we were back to square zero.”

It was during the run-up to Christmas 2020 that airport bosses began to seriously consider fast-tracking the airport’s runway rebuild project, which had been pencilled in for 2022.

Their choice was simple — close completely in late 2021 for 10 weeks, or do the work over 10 months, with night-time restrictions, in 2022 as planned.

2021

Talks took place with the
airline partners, approval for government funding was sought and approved, the complex EU tendering process was launched, and it was announced that the airport would close for three months in late 2021 for the work.

Cork Airport runway under construction in late 2021 which was the fastest large-scale construction project undertaken in the State in recent years, and was opened on time and within budget. Photo: Karol Kachmarsky
Cork Airport runway under construction in late 2021 which was the fastest large-scale construction project undertaken in the State in recent years, and was opened on time and within budget. Photo: Karol Kachmarsky

By January, gardaí were back on duty on the approach roads to Irish airports advising people against international travel and in some cases, issuing fines.

Mr Gallagher says: “We were back to skeleton connectivity — we had Aer Lingus who continued into Heathrow and KLM operating to Amsterdam. We had just two cities connected for those darkest days.

“When you’re trying to keep an airport going and trying to keep the essential connectivity while staying within the realms of the law, it is difficult to get the motivation to keep going.

“That’s continued for almost the entire first half of 2021. It wasn’t really until June when we started seeing the shoots coming up again.

“Ryanair had announced that they were going to restart a service in June which was obviously a positive development and then we saw Air France and Swiss coming back a second time.

“We also had the announcement of Lufthansa announcing Frankfurt which was a very welcome announcement. That was our first Frankfurt service in a long time — it’s a route that the people of Cork have been shouting for for years.

“And I don’t think anyone would have expected it to start in the middle of a pandemic. So that was obviously a welcome announcement.”

Despite the lack of scheduled commercial aviation traffic, the airport was gearing up for what was going to be its busiest period in more than a year, and so it closed as the runway rebuild got under way in earnest on September 13.

One of four hundred concrete electrical pits being installed as part of the new lighting system during the reconstruction of the new runway at Cork Airport. Photo: Larry Cummins
One of four hundred concrete electrical pits being installed as part of the new lighting system during the reconstruction of the new runway at Cork Airport. Photo: Larry Cummins

Two weeks into the build, Ryanair hosted a press conference inside a deserted airport terminal to announce the reopening of its two-aircraft base at Cork Airport and the restoration of 20 routes across the UK and Europe.

2022

The €200m investment would restore all of Ryanair’s pre-pandemic passenger-carrying capacity at Cork from December, with the addition of new services to Birmingham and Edinburgh which are unserved following the collapse of Stobart Air.

It was one of a string of positive announcements during the airport closure.

Aer Lingus confirmed that it would reopen its base, Vueling would fly to Paris Orly from November, Swiss would fly to Geneva from
December, and KLM was to double its offering to Amsterdam.

And, by November 22 last year, the new runway, the fastest large-scale construction project in the State in
recent years, was opened on time and within budget.

At the end of September, Ryanair announced the reopening of its two-aircraft base at Cork Airport and the restoration of 20 routes across the UK and Europe. (Left to right) Ray Kelliher, Director of route development Ryanair, Brian Gallagher, Head of Aviation, Cork Airport, Ryanair staff Natlia Matloch Eddie Wilson CEO Ryanair DAC, Ryanair staff Lindie Murphy and Niall MacCarthy, MD, Cork Airport. Picture: Dan Linehan
At the end of September, Ryanair announced the reopening of its two-aircraft base at Cork Airport and the restoration of 20 routes across the UK and Europe. (Left to right) Ray Kelliher, Director of route development Ryanair, Brian Gallagher, Head of Aviation, Cork Airport, Ryanair staff Natlia Matloch Eddie Wilson CEO Ryanair DAC, Ryanair staff Lindie Murphy and Niall MacCarthy, MD, Cork Airport. Picture: Dan Linehan

“The feeling was to take the impact of this project in 2021 and be done with it,” Mr Gallagher says.

“The alternative was to do it when you’re trying to recover traffic [in 2022], and that was the bigger concern for me. Now that we are open, we can forget about it — the job is done and we just move forward.”

The airport now has five airline customers operating 20 routes. It has eight carriers confirmed for this year that will operate 38 routes — Ryanair will operate 22 routes, Aer Lingus seven, Vueling, KLM, Air France and Lufthansa will operate a route each, with Swiss flying two routes and TUI three.

And talks are at an advanced stage with Iberia and Volotea to restart other services.

“While the route network is down 50% on pre-Covid, the range of airlines is stronger than before,” says Mr Gallagher.

Airport has plans in case pandemic continues

Eoin English 

Cork Airport was on course to reach 250,000 passengers by the end of 2021.

At the time he spoke to the Irish Examiner, Brian Gallagher, the head of aviation and commercial business at the airport, said 190,000 people had gone through the facility, but more were expected over the Christmas period.

That was a year which started in lockdown and included a three-month closure for its runway renewal project, too.

“It’s more than was forecast, even with runway closure. August was a lot stronger than expected and the recovery in November has been strong too,” Mr Gallagher says.

“We may have a third of our traffic for the year in the month of December. We may well cross the 100,000 passenger number in December which would be fantastic.” 

Sinead Martin and Kevin O'Brien with their children Aidan and Darcie after arriving at Cork Airport from Birmingham for Christmas. Picture: Denis Minihane
Sinead Martin and Kevin O'Brien with their children Aidan and Darcie after arriving at Cork Airport from Birmingham for Christmas. Picture: Denis Minihane

But this is all being discussed against the backdrop of concerns about the rampant spread of the Omicron variant.

Worrying trends are already emerging in the European aviation market. There has been an increase in no-shows for flights and there has been a slowdown in forward bookings for the next few months in recent weeks.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an all-out emergency or putting the brakes on or anything like that but there is this trepidation around flying that is creeping back in at the moment,” Mr Gallagher says.

“It may be temporary, we hope it’s temporary, but we have been here before and we know how this pattern goes. We have dealt with this a couple of times before and we will deal with it again.

“This isn’t a solely Irish problem. This is happening globally. My counterparts in Vienna, in Frankfurt, and in Munich have the exact same challenges that we have.

“But we have maintained dialogue with our airline partners over the last two years, in particular with the Irish carriers. We had almost weekly dialogues with their network teams for a long time to exchange data on trends and that kind of thing."

The predictions are "generally optimistic" for the months ahead, Mr Gallagher says, so it's "full steam ahead". “There are plans and strategies in place for if the pandemic continues.

“What most people are broadly agreeing on in the industry is that we are probably looking at around 70% recovery next year. We have a 1.8m passenger target for next year. It is so difficult to determine when passenger numbers may recover to pre-Covid levels given how rapidly the situation can change.

“If we get a bumper quarter one next year, and if people are flying for really low fares to the sun destinations, on city breaks and things like that, then you could see more than 70% growth next year. For me, it’s all about quarter one. It’s like a good start is half the work, it kind of sets you up for the rest of the year.

“I would be confident that you will see traffic return fairly consistently by 2024. The traffic mix will change, it’s going to be more short haul with more low-cost carriers and that’s going to be at the expense of long-haul and full-service carriers.” 

Brian Gallagher: "There is this trepidation around flying that is creeping back in at the moment." Photo: Moya Nolan
Brian Gallagher: "There is this trepidation around flying that is creeping back in at the moment." Photo: Moya Nolan

He said he expects much of next year’s travel to be focused on reconnecting families or catching up on postponed holidays, and the jury is out on the recovery of business travel which accounted for between 10% and 13% of the airport’s business pre-Covid.

Much of his team’s focus will be on rebuilding the UK market, connecting to larger UK cities, and on attracting hub carriers that can connect Cork to more European capitals. “Hub carriers bring connectivity and high frequency and they also build demand for longer destination traffic,” Mr Gallagher says.

“So if you have more hub carriers in Cork you have less people driving to Dublin to catch flights, you have more people connecting out of Cork to Heathrow and Amsterdam to get to places like the US.

“Once you build that critical mass for long haul demand out of Cork, it makes a direct link more viable. So the more hub carriers that we can build the better.” 

Cork Airport charging schemes

And he’s using two schemes, both of which are supported by government funding, to attract more airlines, and encourage them to launch new routes as he leads the rebuilding of its decimated network.

“Our charges have remained static since 2009 and since Covid, we have introduced two very simple schemes: one where all airport charges are discounted by 30% until the end of October 2022, and the second, a base incentive scheme for airlines which base one or more aircraft at Cork Airport, which is applied as a once-off credit, set off against an operator’s account at the airport,” he says.

Airlines will pay less than €6 per passenger after discounts on the airport’s published charges are applied under the current schemes.

“There is a desire from all airlines that we deal with to try and get back to where they were,” Mr Gallagher says.

“They are difficult negotiators. They always have been. They all want the best price for operating in to Cork Airport. That’s just the way things are but I would say that there is more of a desire to get back to normal and there is a desire to drive down our price.”

Brian Gallagher: “I would be confident that you will see traffic return fairly consistently by 2024." Photo: Moya Nolan
Brian Gallagher: “I would be confident that you will see traffic return fairly consistently by 2024." Photo: Moya Nolan

Despite the turbulence of Covid, growth is still in his genes. He stresses that it's a team effort, mentioning the people who kept the airport open throughout lockdown, and during the runway rebuild, for search and rescue, garda helicopter, or air ambulance operations.

“I have the enviable job that gets the glory when things go well, new routes or airlines and it’s my face in the photographs; but we are nothing without the teams at Cork Airport that keep the operation running day in day out, 24 hours a day - from the ground handlers to the catering staff, security, airport police, operations management, cleaning, cabin and flight crews, the list is endless,” he says.

“The eco-system only runs when everyone is doing their part and the team at Cork Airport completes the work and usually gets minimal thanks for their efforts.”

Pent-up demand for travel

Statistics from the CSO show a clear pent-up demand for overseas travel, with the overwhelming majority expected to be by air.

And with household savings of over €31bn in 2020, and the addition of €16bn in deposits — significantly higher than in 2006 when €12bn was added at the height of the SSIA initiative — it is predicted that, pending the lifting of public health restrictions, many people will begin to spend much of that money on overseas travel this year.

The CSO’s Intention to Travel Survey from April showed that, while seven in ten people intended to take an overnight domestic trip within the next six months, the corresponding figure for overseas travel was 32.4%.

The survey found that almost two-thirds of Irish residents aged 18 and over had cancelled an overnight trip due to Covid-19 since March 2020, with more than half of Irish residents (54.5%) cancelling overnight overseas trips due to the pandemic.

The survey showed that while 47.3% of people intended to travel abroad in 2021, 34.5% intend to take their next trip outside the island of Ireland in 2022 or later, while the remainder (18.2%) are not thinking about trips abroad at present.

There were less than 100,000 outbound overnight trips undertaken by Irish residents in the second quarter of the year, accounting for over 850,000 bed nights and spending of almost €42m, but the figures have been rising steadily since July.

At the time of writing, October 2021 is the most recent month for which CSO overseas travel statistics are available.

The figures show that 925,500 passengers arrived in Ireland (up 14% on the previous month). During October, 895,100 passengers departed from Ireland on overseas routes — up 13% on the previous month.

But while October’s figures are nearly half that of those from pre-pandemic October 2019, the figures have been rising steadily since last July, as Covid restrictions eased and international travel resumed.

Of the 895,100 who departed Ireland, 91.7% (821,200) departed by air.

The October 2021 statistics show that continental routes contributed most to the passenger traffic.

Some 546,000 passengers arrived on continental routes and 505,600 passengers departed on continental routes.

By way of contrast, 314,200 passengers arrived on cross-channel routes and 322,900 passengers departed on cross-channel routes.

Just 39,000 passengers arrived on transatlantic routes and 42,100 passengers departed on these routes.

Apart from Britain, which accounted for all cross-channel routes, the most important routing countries for overseas travel in October 2021 were Spain (152,200 arrivals, 140,900 departures), France (58,900 arrivals, 52,600 departures) and Portugal (53,000 arrivals, 48,000 departures).

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