‘Build it and they’ll come’: How Knock airport is gaining altitude
Joe Gilmore, CEO of Ireland West Airport, on the personal nature of the airport and how US flights could take off once again
Joe Gilmore, chief executive of Ireland West Airport, Knock, Co Mayo. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
“And they said it couldn’t be done,” read the headline on a souvenir supplement of the Western People on May 28th, 1986 – the official opening day of what was then Connacht Regional Airport.
The very existence of the airport was somewhat miraculous. Political will for what is now called Ireland West Airport Knock was practically non-existent in the years leading up to the completion of the western outpost. The airport’s cheerleader-in-chief, Monsignor James Horan, managed to convince the Charlie Haughey-led government to build an airport on what critics called a “foggy, boggy site”.
Today, the site is still boggy and somewhat foggy, but this year it will handle around 750,000 passengers – a far cry from the 8,000 it handled in those early days.
On arrival at the airport, I spot Joe Gilmore, the airport’s chief executive, talking to a punter outside one of the retail outlets in the arrivals hall.
“Typically if I go downstairs I find it hard to come back up,” he tells me later. “It’s personal, this airport is, and most of the time that’s good because the staff take a genuine pride in doing a good job.”
Personal or not, the airport has a tough task. Its catchment area is well over one quarter of the geographical landmass of the State, and, like every airport in the country except for Dublin and Cork, it is unprofitable and requires State funding.
“Over the course of the 30-year life of this airport, there’s been approximately €30 to €35 million of funding put in by the State,” says Gilmore. “Over the same period, the region has put in the same amount of money because we collect €10 from each passenger. So, if you look for a private-public partnership, you’ve got it here.
“If you look for value for money, this airport has thrown off €140 million in tourism revenue to the region, 200 jobs, one million bed nights and 6,000 downstream jobs every year.”
Gilmore is confident that, while the airport doesn’t pay for itself, and is unlikely to be able to do so in the future, it is important for the west of Ireland.
“We will always argue on the western seaboard, and in the south-west, that airports need to be supported, need to be invested in because they act as the driver and enabler for regional development.”
However, he acknowledges that State investment in the airport could drop if it meets its strategic goal of growing passenger numbers to more than one million a year.
When that goal is met, the airport could be operationally sustainable, in that it would pay for its own staff and other operation costs. Meeting its capital costs, like runway expansions and security enhancements, would be far more difficult. For that, the airport would need between three and five million passengers.
What is particularly striking about Joe Gilmore is his passion for the airport and, by consequence, the region. He observed similar regional development when he started his working life as a process engineer near Shannon airport for a group now part of the General Electric instrumentation division.
Originally from Claremorris in Co Mayo, he moved to the Netherlands in the early 1990s to work for the Irish Trade Board, now Enterprise Ireland. Later that decade he decided to move back to the west of Ireland “to start a family and all that good stuff” and he worked for a multinational cable assembly group called Volex.
In his early career, aviation wasn’t on the cards but he was “always fascinated with travel. I always loved the travel business”.
When the Ireland West Airport job came up in 2009 he grabbed the opportunity.
“[The airport] is iconic in terms of the west of Ireland. Secondly, it’s massively challenging. Thirdly, I had spent quite a lot of time working in the multinational environment and, while I admire what the multinationals have provided, finding a job where you can actually see the results of what you achieve on a fairly immediate basis at a local level gives me greater satisfaction.”
While aviation may not have been written in the stars for Gilmore, moving back to Mayo was. Around the time Knock airport was completing construction, Gilmore was playing under-21 football for Mayo. When I met him, he had come back from Croke Park where he watched his county draw with Roscommon. While he has a Connacht senior medal to his name, he concedes his sporting career never really took off.
But it clearly instilled in him a sense of team work. When I ask him if this job has given him more attention than he had previously sought, he said: “Possibly. I wouldn’t particularly look for the profile. I like to try and get things done on a team basis.”
There is no doubt that, during Gilmore’s tenure, the airport’s position has strengthened. Just over 150,000 passengers have been added and the airport is the only “fully integrated” one across Europe in that it runs everything from baggage claim to retail outlets and the control tower.
“Typically we run a very small, tight overhead and we need to run it that way,” the chief executive said. That’s evident in the fact that over 70 per cent of Knock’s staff are cross-trained: “The person that potentially checks you in could be the person that puts your bag on the aircraft . . . and they could also be a fully trained fireman,” he said.
As a result of the airport’s investment in its staff, turnover is small, Gilmore says. “We have a very loyal staff complement. They all tend to live quite close to the airport and they all take great pride in the airport.”
Ireland West Airport appears to be a well oiled machine but Gilmore doesn’t give himself any credit: “I’m just a flag bearer.
“We’re a small group . . . there’s maybe 10 staff in the office that run the operation. The frontline staff say it works far better at weekends when we’re not here,” he quips.
Whatever the case, the airport needs political will if it is to continue in operation and, while Gilmore believes he’s done a good job of convincing national government of the airport’s importance, he understands that the next few years will be crucial.
“The biggest challenge we’ve got is to educate people as to what’s going on here . . . Once we can succeed in convincing a customer on the periphery of our catchment, for example somebody in Longford, to use us once, typically the ease of access and convenience and the friendliness and hopefully the value for money [will mean] they’ll use us a second time.”
Education drive or not, the regional nature of politics must be some cause for concern for the airport’s chief executive. “Politicians west of the Shannon are very supportive of this airport,” he said.
What about politicians on the eastern seaboard?
“Every politician tends to be taken up with issues within their own catchment. When we bring politicians down here and ministers, we can show and convince them that we have a viable business and provide value for money.”
Perhaps Gilmore can convince the politicians the airport is an important economic driver for the west. But, he’ll also have to convince them to put money into the facility.
The airport is beginning to get a bit tired. The original building, constructed in 1986 and designed to cater for those 8,000 passengers, now has to facilitate a far greater number than expected. The runway needs expansion, the car park is running out of space and the restaurant in the arrivals hall is fast becoming surplus to requirements as a change in habits means that people now arrive later to airports than they used to.
A project that started just before the recession saw a new arrivals hall built, but the rest of the project had to be shelved when government finances became strained.
So, as it stands, the airport is beginning to burst at the seams. It undoubtedly require sustained investment just to upgrade the aesthetics, not to mind security and infrastructure.
But Gilmore isn’t alarmed. He’s been busy working to diversify the route offering at the facility. Specifically, he wants to increase the likelihood of a US route returning to Knock with the low-cost transatlantic carrier, Norwegian airlines.
“We’re hopeful, we’re hopeful. We’ve had the conversations and we’re still having the conversations. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
He’s been doing more than keeping his fingers crossed. Gilmore recently returned from New York where he signed a co-operation agreement with Stewart International Airport. The aim of the agreement was to be in a position to develop direct air access with a specific carrier.
Of course, this won’t be the first time the airport had flights to the US. There were services in 2012 and, while the demand was strong, the airline didn’t work out. This time, however, it’s important the airport gets another chance at US connectivity. The Brexit threat could prove significant considering the UK makes up over 80 per cent of the airport’s business. As to when US flights could happen, Gilmore expects take-off in the next 12 to 18 months.
Connectivity to the US could add another string to the bow of what has been an ever-evolving route plan.
Originally it was envisaged that a significant amount of traffic would come from pilgrimages into Knock shrine. That’s not the case anymore – in the last three years the airport has had three religious charters, two inbound and one outbound.
In the baggage hall, a Vatican flag stands in the corner, one of a number of reminders of the importance the church played in getting the airport built. Another reminder is a line in the runway where Monsignor Horan built from the outside in so that, when the airport ran out of funds to finish the runway, the government would have no choice but to step in and complete it.
In any event, Gilmore recognises that religion and the church have contributed positively to the airport in that “they’re business people and they recognise the challenges”.
“The original foundations came through Monsignor Horan but he wasn’t building from a purely religious perspective. He realised the dire economic situation the West was in.”
Although Gilmore found the religious influence unusual when he first took the job, he says that the clergy members of the board don’t impose any religious ethos. “We’ve got a prayer room that’s both Christian and Muslim,” he notes.
Now in its fourth decade, Ireland West Airport Knock has undoubtedly helped the region. Would it be built today?
“No, I think it would not be built today,” Gilmore says. However, despite all the negativity surrounding the airport when it was being built and the challenges it has faced since, Gilmore believes that Monsignor Horan proved one thing: “Build it and they’ll come.
“I think the west has a lot to offer. You have to take risks and you have to invest in the right infrastructure,” he concludes.
Name: Joe Gilmore
Position: Chief executive of Ireland West Airport Knock
From: Claremorris, Co Mayo
Family: Married with four teenage boys
Education: St Coleman’s, Claremorris, followed by a honour’s physics degree from DCU and an MBA from NUIG
Something you might expect: As a former Mayo county player, Joe is sport crazy
Something you might not expect: Joe is not originally from the aviation industry. His current job at Knock Airport was his first in the sector