Cork and Shannon airports were looking forward to a year of growth at the beginning of 2020.
Cork was striving to bring another transatlantic route to the region, having lost Norwegian Air International’s routes to Providence in Rhode Island in 2019.
With breakneck advances in aircraft technology and better fuel economy and consumptions, an undeterred Cork was eyeing the big prize — a flight to New York City, the crown jewel in any regional airport’s collection.
It had proven that it was the regional airport that could — passengers had flown from Cork to the US and back, despite previous historic engineering hindrances.
It was Norwegian’s decision to pull the plug because of other financial concerns, not Cork’s fault.
Cork was raring to go again, this time to the Big Apple.
That New York City flight was getting closer under the persuasive and doggedly determined leadership of Cork Airport managing director Niall MacCarthy.
This month one year ago, Cork Airport proudly announced its two millionth passenger for the first nine months of the year, growth of 9%, and a huge milestone for a facility that always insisted it could rival any regional airport in the world.
An economic analysis revealed Cork Airport contributed to the employment of 12,180 people in Ireland, equivalent to 10,740 full-time jobs, earning a total of €457m, in 2019.
The dawn of a new decade was met with excitement and endless possibilities for business leaders and tourism chiefs alike.
Shannon Airport was also flying it.
In July 2019, the airport celebrated its 80th birthday, calling itself “the centrepiece and driver of the regional economy”, as it marked the landing of its first passenger aircraft way back in 1939.
Framing itself as the only airport outside the capital offering direct flights to all key Irish markets — the UK, European mainland and US —Shannon was priming for a new decade of prosperity and growth after a difficult 10 years.
Shannon Group’s economic impact sees it generate €3.6bn gross added value for the Irish economy each year, it said, while contributing €1.15bn annually in tax revenue.
Over 46,000 jobs are supported by the activities of Shannon Group, it was at pains to add.
Calling itself the centrepiece and driver of the regional economy in the Shannon basin was no exaggeration.
Then the bottom fell out.
Instead of the fit, healthy and vibrant entities they appeared to be, Covid-19 has left Cork Airport and Shannon Airport clinging to life.
Like the insidious disease that has taken the lives of so many across the world, and which has left millions with lasting effects, Cork and Shannon began March 2020 wheezing and spluttering.
That wheeze soon turned to breathing difficulties by April, and by June the airports were gasping for oxygen.
Temporary funding and state aid approval has left them on life support, but Cork and Shannon Airports cannot survive without planes flying again with full passenger loads.
Shannon insiders are adamant that a reset is needed for medium-to-long-term growth if they can get through the current crisis.
Since the last financial crisis of 2008, Dublin Airport has grown exponentially. While Cork and Shannon have also posted impressive numbers, it is small change compared to the numbers that go through the capital.
According to its own 2019 economic analysis, Dublin Airport passenger traffic reached 31.5 million in 2018, having increased 56.7% in the five years previously.
It boasts of direct services to over 80 destinations in over 40 countries on four continents, and is a home base for two major carriers, Ryanair and Aer Lingus, and provides service to more than 40 airlines.
The Daa, formerly known as Dublin Airport Authority, manage Cork Airport as well as Dublin, while Shannon became independent in 2013.
The Daa insists that Cork is a priority and that the investment reflects that, but Shannon insiders believe that both regional airports deserve better support from aviation authorities and lawmakers alike.
Dublin will be fine after this Covid-19 crisis is all said and done, because it had no underlying issues to worry about.
However, Cork and Shannon, as the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare, are a different story.
They rely heavily on Ryanair, and the decision to close both bases for the winter is devastating both economically and strategically.
Shannon Airport insiders insist that while it is a shock to lose Ryanair for the winter, it was entirely predictable, given the current state of affairs.
One said that even if Cork and Shannon had been given the tools to take even 20% of the growth numbers from Dublin Airport since the last recession, when aviation had a reset in Ireland, both would be in a much better position.
Dublin Airport would be in a robust state of growth, even at 80% of those numbers, while Shannon and Cork would be solidified as real regional powerhouses that could handle much bigger numbers and airlines, the insider said.
In any recovery from Covid-19, if Dublin again takes 90% of passengers in and out of Ireland, then Cork and Shannon are “screwed”, the insider added.
Both regions will need sizeable route development funds from the Government to bolster their economic plans if any recovery is to happen before 2025, according to strategists.
Half of any route development funds allocated to Cork and Shannon may sound outlandish on the face of it, considering how important Dublin is internationally, but it could provide a much needed shot in the arm, they claim.
It is as much in Dublin’s interest as it is for the regions, they say — the more Dublin is decongested, the better it is for all, with a spread across all of Ireland when it comes to new routes.
Airlines will follow the money and base themselves in Cork and Shannon if incentivised to do so, it is claimed.
“Once the path turns on the public health crisis that is of course the number one priority, we have an opportunity to correct the regional imbalance that has helped fuel this crisis for Cork and Shannon.
"It will effectively mean starting from zero again. The question is — do the lawmakers and decision makers have the stomach to do so? Only time will tell, but if this isn’t a wake-up call, then nothing is,” the Shannon insider said.