Eoin English looks at why it was such a struggle to convince some of the stakeholders that transatlantic flights to and from Cork would be a good deal all round.
IT LOOKED for a long time as if Cork Airport’s first direct transatlantic flights would never take off - with the journey from Norwegian’s licence application in 2014 to yesterday’s historic confirmation of a start date hitting several patches of severe turbulence along the way.
But thanks to an intensive lobbying campaign which reached all the way to the Oval Office, Norwegian Air International (NAI), a subsidiary of low-fares giant, Norwegian, finally announced details yesterday of its three-flights-a-week service from Cork Airport to TF Green Airport, in New England, about 112km south of Boston - the airport’s first ever direct scheduled service to the US.
NAI hopes to launch a Cork-to-New York service next year, landing at Stewart International Airport - about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
NAI also announced plans yesterday to operate 12 flights a week from Dublin and four from Shannon - a move which is expected to result in a huge shake-up of the Irish transatlantic aviation market.
It has been predicted that NAI will do for the long-haul transatlantic market what Ryanair did for short-haul.
Yesterday’s press conference at Cork Airport marked the end of a long and at time tortuous process which became public in September 2015 when Norwegian announced its plans to use Dublin-based NAI to launch flights from Cork Airport to the US.
It emerged later that the airline had applied for the licence a year earlier, and only went public out of frustration over delays securing its foreign carrier permit from the US Department of Transportation (DoT).
This licensing process which would normally take just a few months would go on to become one of the longest-running applications of its kind ever made.
It triggered a David versus Goliath-style battle, with Cork Airport, the EU and Irish political, tourism and business interests backing NAI, all ranged against the might of several influential US and EU labour unions, several US legacy airlines, and up to 32 Congressmen, who were bitterly opposed to the arrival of a low-fares operator in the US market.
NAI has always insisted that their proposed Irish operation is consistent with the terms of the EU-EU Open Skies agreement. But its opponents argued that NAI was set up as a flag of convenience, designed to skirt labour laws. The airline has always rejected the claims.
NAI’s licence application stalled for an unprecedented two years, and prompted an intense lobbying campaign, driven by Cork Airport, which was ultimately backed by the European Commission.
It resulted in Enda Kenny raising the licencing delay with former US President Barack Obama during his visit to the White House last St Patrick’s Day.
Mr Obama said at the time that there was no political impediment to the routes, fuelling hopes that a decision on the licence was imminent.
But when it became clear that a DoT decision was further away than ever, the European Commission threatened arbitration and legal action, claiming the US authorities were in breach of Open Skies by not granting the licence.
Finally, late last year, the DoT finally granted the foreign carrier permit, describing the airline’s application as one of “the most novel and complex” they’d ever processed.
But the opposition continued, with US labour unions and politicians urging the new US President Donald Trump to revoke the licence.
However, when White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, told a press briefing last month that the proposed routes were important for American jobs, it was clear that the airline’s opponents had run out of runway.
The US Federal Aviation Administration signed off on the airline’s final piece of regulatory paperwork last Friday, clearing the way for yesterday’s announcement.
Cork Airport’s intensive lobbying campaign was recognised last November when it won the Corporate Campaign of the Year Prize at the inaugural EU Public Affairs Awards.
Airport manager director, Niall MacCarthy, said the involvement of the EU, and the raising of the issue in the White House, were key turning points.
“That then made it a foreign policy issue,” he said.
“It has been a long and challenging journey to secure the services and the licences necessary to get our transatlantic services up and flying. But we stayed with it all the way, partnering with Norwegian and with the support of our local stakeholders. A tremendous amount of work has been done to land this route on both sides of the Atlantic and I would like to acknowledge the huge support received from political, business and local government stakeholders in Ireland, the EU and US. We also received a huge amount of support from the public.”
Norwegian CEO, Bjorn Kjos, acknowledged that support publicly yesterday: “These ambitious new transatlantic routes simply wouldn’t have been possible without the significant support we have received throughout Ireland over the last three years. We are hugely grateful for this continued support and are delighted to finally unveil our plans.”
Airport spokesman, Kevin Cullinane, who was centrally involved in the lobbying campaign, said getting the matter raised in the White House, as he liaised with US contacts from his car on Youghal bridge, was never a challenge he expected.
It resulted in Irish Examiner political editor, Daniel McConnell, asking Mr Obama directly about the licensing delays, with his response gaining international press coverage.
“That didn’t go unnoticed in Brussels either - that a modest-sized airport in the south of Ireland could take on the might of US interests,” Mr Cullinane said.
“Really, this was a litmus test for EU-US bilateral arrangements. But we were prepared to put our head above the parapet and fight for it. And sometimes the small guys win.”
There was some concern expressed yesterday among those gathered at the press conference that after all the lobbying work driven by Cork Airport, Dublin got the bulk of the flights, and Shannon, Cork’s closest competitor, got four weekly flights - two to Boston/Providence and two to Stewart Airport/New York.
Airport management said they had always expected that to happen - that that’s just the way the aviation market works. The challenge for Cork Airport management now will be to market its position at the gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way, and to market its first direct US route aggressively.
Mr Kjos urged his transatlantic competitors to embrace competition: “What’s good for the consumer is also good for the airlines.”
And he also responded to his US critics by stressing how the airline’s expansion plans will create American jobs. Norwegian is one of US aviation giant Boeing’s biggest customers - with 250 aircraft on order.
“First of all, we will do what President Trump wants. We will fly Boeing aircraft, we will help create Boeing jobs. We have a large order of Boeing aircraft, flying the newest aircraft they have, we are the launching customers of the Boeing Max. And we are the only European airline opening bases in the US,” he said.
And he insisted that the airline jobs will adhere to all relevant labour laws: “What we do is we put the bases where the routes meet, and if they meet, like in this case in Providence, we set up a base in Providence. And we have to comply with all the labour laws in Providence, we have to be competitive in terms of salaries and benefits to everybody.”
Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune, a member of the EU Transport Committee, who played a central role in raising the issue at EU level, said it has been a long and difficult process: “But we got there in the end. For every 10,000 passengers brought through an airport, it has been shown to create 12 full-time local jobs. As an island, it is essential that we continue to be as connected by air as we possibly can and these new flights will open up new avenues for tourism from the US east coast.”
Cork Airport’s passenger growth in 2017, which is already under way, is expected to top the 8% passenger growth recorded last year.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved