Irish Aviation Authority head Eamonn Brennan is in it for the long haul to the US

Staff from the authority guide 2,200 overflights between Europe and the US daily

Eamonn Brennan, chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority, pictured in the Air Traffic Control Tower at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Eamonn Brennan, chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority, pictured in the Air Traffic Control Tower at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times


One Friday last month, 2,200 aircraft flew through Irish airspace, while another 730 took off from and landed at the Republic’s airports. That’s almost 125 aircraft an hour or more than two every minute. When you think that the traffic was not spread evenly through the day, it made for some very intense periods in our skies.

As it happens, it was a pretty typical day. Ireland’s position as an island in the north Atlantic means the Republic commands a vast chunk of airspace off western Europe and is jointly responsible with the UK for a much bigger area, known as Shanwick, which stretches half way across the ocean.

The 2,200 “over flights” represented 90 per cent of the traffic between Europe and North America that day. As they headed out over the Atlantic, staff from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) guided them on to the routes they would follow, allocating them slots at about 38,000 feet (11,600 metres) above sea level, a safe distance apart from those in front, behind and on either side.

“We are the glue that holds the industry together,” IAA chief executive Eamonn Brennan says of the State organisation’s roles as regulator and air traffic controller. Whether they land here or not, some of world’s biggest aviation names are the agency’s customers. They include International Airlines Group (IAG), the owner of Aer Lingus, British Airways, Delta and United Airlines. Last year, the authority’s activities generated €183 million in revenues and €33 million profit.

In the Republic, the IAA oversees Europe’s largest carrier, Ryanair, which has 350 aircraft and more than 100 million passengers flying virtually everywhere on the continent and as far as Israel, as well as Aer Lingus, Cityjet and Stobart. They are customers of its air traffic control and navigation services and, as Irish airlines, the IAA is responsible for regulating their safety standards.

Safety means all its aspects. When Ryanair or Aer Lingus wants to fly a new route, the IAA goes to the destination airport to ensure it is up to standard. It will also look at the approaches into it to determine how they should be taken and it sends inspectors to ensure that standards are maintained. Dublin senior football manager Jim Gavin, a former air force officer and qualified Airbus pilot, is one of those responsible for Ryanair.

It is the IAA’s latest client, Norwegian Air International, that has drawn it into the media spotlight. The airline is the focus of a row between the US and the EU that has seen the authority clash with some global heavyweights whose aircraft it guides back and forth over the Atlantic.

Norwegian is registered here, as are 33 of its aircraft, and it is licensed by the IAA. This means that it should benefit from the Open Skies treaty that allows airlines based in one member state to fly from anywhere in the EU to the US. Its parent, Norwegian Air Shuttle, wants to use the Irish subsidiary to operate a Ryanair-style long-haul airline that will offer cheap flights from Europe to North America and the Far East, beginning with routes to Boston from Cork and Shannon.

However, the US has yet to issue it with a foreign carrier’s permit, thus preventing it from flying there.

Norwegian’s application met strident opposition from US airlines such as Delta, United and American, and powerful aviation unions, including Southwest Airline Pilots’ Association and the Air Line Pilots Association, who claim Norwegian’s application is in breach of part of Open Skies as it intends to use the Republic as a flag of convenience. They argue that this will damage working conditions and labour protections in European and US aviation, with serious implications for safety.

Sharp response

Such assertions drew a sharp public response from Brennan. He points out that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN body which oversees the industry globally, consistently ranks the IAA among the world’s top four regulators – ahead of the United States (which came sixth last year) among others.

“They [Norwegian’s opponents] imply there is a problem,” he says. “I can tell you that there isn’t a problem. First of all, every empirical assessment of the safety regime in Ireland has been very positive and better than a lot of the regimes where these guys come from, and that includes the US.

“The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which we work very closely with, has categorised Ireland as a category one state. That means we have the same safety standing as they do. Therefore they take our certificates unreservedly.”

The IAA’s experience of regulating in a large number of other jurisdictions stems from the fact that the Republic is a big player in aircraft leasing. As a result, many of the aircraft on its register actually do their flying in other parts of the world.

“The opposition to Norwegian centres on safety. There’s basically no foundation for that. There is an EU-US Open Skies agreement and, in my view, the US has basically not honoured it.

“Norwegian are entitled to operate from any point in Europe into the US. They have given this added concession – which nobody else has ever given – that they will operate with only US or EU air crew. As far as I am concerned, that deals with any labour issue.”

Raising safety was simply a way of raising concerns in the public’s mind, Brennan argues, pointing out that no pilot can fly an Irish-registered craft without a European Aviation Safety Agency licence, which is recognised in the US and everywhere else. Norwegian’s opponents know this.

“What it’s really about is Delta and United. They don’t want any competition on the north Atlantic, and that’s really simply what it is all about. Norwegian is bringing new aircraft and a low-cost model to the north Atlantic,” Brennan says.

Brennan has experience working with low cost operators trying to upset the status quo. He joined the authority as its commercial director in the early 1990s, shortly after then minister, Brian Cowen, had spun it out of the Department of Transport and set it up as an independent agency. At the time, Ryanair’s growth was gathering momentum as the EU liberalised aviation and the airline moved towards its 1997 flotation.

The IAA’s approach was to work with the emerging airline rather than against it, giving it “a fair crack of the whip once it met the highest safety standards”. Brennan says the authority recognised that it could be good for the State, delivering jobs and growth. It has worked this way with other airlines, something he maintains peers in other EU jurisdictions have not done. That, he says, is why low-cost carriers have been slower to emerge from some countries, such as France.

Is there a risk of a conflict between regulating on the one hand and recognising commercial benefits on the other?

He says there is no danger of the IAA making the same mistakes as the banking regulators did ahead of the recession, allowing those they were overseeing to set the standards. This is because “there are no Irish aviation safety standards; there are only European safety standards, that everyone has to abide by”.

Because its income comes from a spread of airlines, headed by IAG – a big player on the Atlantic, which accounted for 10 per cent of its €183 million turnover last year – the IAA is not beholden to any one airline. Significantly United and Delta, whose opposition to Norwegian he criticises so trenchantly, were the second- and third-largest contributors to revenue last year, both contributing more than 8 per cent. Ryanair was fourth with 7.4 per cent.

The IAA’s approach has not stopped him clashing with Ryanair and it looks like a row could be looming. The authority plans to build a new air traffic control tower at a cost of €50 million, to go with Dublin Airport’s planned new runway, which is likely to cost €320 million.

Some airlines have questioned the runway’s cost, but Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary came straight out and said his company was not paying for the IAA project, which, he argued, was not needed as there were cheaper alternatives, such as using remote systems.

“The reason for the new tower in Dublin is very simple,” Brennan says. “First of all, you can’t see the runway. To operate a new runway safely, you have got to be able to see it. We have very modern ground control infrastructure, but you have got to be able to see it.

“We’re looking at remote towers for Cork. We’re looking at remote towers for Shannon. We’ve looked at where remote tower technology has been deployed all over the world and the maximum we have come across to date, certified, is an airport in Sweden that handles 2,000 movements a year. We need something that needs to handle 300,000. We did a study on it, the study came down and said, ‘You’ve got to build a tower’.

“The tower is not going to cost €50 million; €25 million is going on new navigation aids, new instrument landing systems, something that it was going to be spent on in any event, whether or not the tower is built. If we can find a way of doing it without building the tower we will but, in my view, that’s not going to happen.” Once DAA, Dublin Airport’s manager, begins its work, the IAA will press ahead with its plan, he insists.

New technology plays a big part in another project in which the IAA is involved with its Canadian, Danish and Italian counterparts along with US satellite developer, Iridium. Brennan says this venture is behind the most important development in air navigation since radar.

Once aircraft heading out across the Atlantic get 256 nautical miles past the IAA’s communications centre in Ballygirreen near Shannon, they are no longer visible on radar. They maintain voice contact with the authority until they exit Shanwick and enter airspace controlled by the Canadians half way across the Atlantic.

They cannot deviate from the course set by the IAA and must stay at that level until they are 256 nautical miles from Canada, where visual contact is restored. “We are depending on you to tell us where you are, that has been the way since the 1940s,” Brennan explains.

Aireon will change this. Using 69 satellites, the first 10 of which will be launched in September, its system will allow the IAA to see and hear the aircraft over the ocean. “From 2018, there will be a new system on the north Atlantic where we will have satellite surveillance on every aircraft,” says Brennan. “We will be able to operate it in the same way as if you are flying over Ireland, with full radar coverage.”

This will mean a big step up for safety and the IAA will be central to this. Its Ballygirreen facility will operate Aireon’s global emergency tracking system, Alert, which will provide precise details on any craft’s last known location if it goes missing. It can relay this to search and rescue agencies, air traffic authorities and civil aviation bodies anywhere in the world to aid them in tracking down aircraft.

It could help make cases like MH370, the Malaysian flight that disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, and Air France AF447, which crashed close to the Brazilian coast, but which took three days to find, a thing of the past. While Aireon and the IAA will also develop new products on the back of the technology that can be sold commercially, Alert will be free to any airline registered with the ICAO.

Brennan believes it will be revolutionary. “It really will make aviation much safer for the next 50 years,” he says.


Name: Eamonn Brennan

Position: chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority

Age: 58

Family: Married with three grown children.

Career: He studied at National University of Ireland, Galway – he’s from nearby Salthill – and qualified as a chartered accountant. He moved to London in the 1980s, and went into tourism and travel consultancy. This took him first to Malta and then to the Far East, where he worked on a joint EU-Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) trade deal focused on tourism. He returned home in the early 1990s and answered an advertisement in the paper that led to his appointment as commercial director of the IAA, the then newly independent of the Department of Transport.

Something that won’t surprise: He has a pilot’s licence.

Something that might surprise: He goes hillwalking in the Himalayas with friends every year.

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