Shannon group could establish its own airline, incoming chairman says

Politicians poised to demand executive powers for Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Pádraig Ó Céidigh previously ran Aer Arann, which grew its business from serving the Aran Islands to become a regional carrier. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Pádraig Ó Céidigh previously ran Aer Arann, which grew its business from serving the Aran Islands to become a regional carrier. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Shannon Group’s incoming chairman Pádraig Ó Céidigh believes the State company could establish its own airline.

It has emerged, meanwhile, that politicians are poised to demand that Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan promote Mr Ó Céidigh to the position of executive chairman of the mid-western group.

The Government recently named Mr Ó Céidigh, former chief of Aer Arann, as non-executive chairman of the State-owned group responsible for Shannon Airport, an industrial estate and other businesses.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications pledged to write to Mr Ryan calling on him to appoint Mr Ó Céidigh as executive chairman of Shannon Group. Mary Considine is currently its chief executive.

Fianna Fáil senator, Timmy Dooley, argued that there was “precedent” for appointing executive chairpersons to State companies where circumstances demanded it.

He noted that non-executive chairpersons tended to be hands-off, while Shannon needed someone hands-on who could “travel to meet airlines, chief executives and players in the industry” to aid the airport’s recovery.

Responding to an earlier suggestion from Mr Dooley, that this was the time for Shannon Group to establish its own airline, the chairman designate agreed that was possible. However, he cautioned the committee that it was a “huge, huge task” and could be part of Shannon’s longer-term strategy.

Aer Arann

Mr Ó Céidigh previously ran Aer Arann, which grew its business from serving the Aran Islands to become a regional carrier.

The company went into examinership, a High Court-supervised rescue process, in 2014, after a recession hit passenger numbers. British transport group Stobart then took it over.

Stobart Air operated the Aer Lingus regional franchise, but folded in June after its owner withdrew financing. Covid-19 travel curbs had devastated the carrier’s business.

Mr Ó Céidigh now chairs a different carrier, Aer Arann Islands. He served as a senator from 2016 to 2020.

He told the committee that he aimed to recover lost passenger numbers at Shannon airport to 2019 levels within three years. He warned that recovering the airport’s business to pre-pandemic levels is likely to take many years.

“And it’s likely that airports such as Shannon will face increased competition for new routes,” he added. “I want to grow it back to 2019 levels by 2024.”

Mr Ó Céidigh stressed that this included three services to Heathrow Airport a day and all transatlantic flights lost in the face of tough Government Covid travel curbs.

The businessman acknowledged that his target was “ambitious” as EU forecasts indicated that air travel’s recovery from the pandemic’s impact is likely to take five years.

About 1.7 million passengers travelled through Shannon Airport in 2019, but flights from there virtually halted during the worst of the pandemic.

Ryanair recently began flying from the mid-western airport, while it has pledged to restore a full pre-Covid schedule there from next summer.

However, Aer Lingus plans closing a base there as that airline restructures. The carrier is flying from Shannon to Heathrow once a day while Cork Airport is resurfacing its runway.

Mr Ó Céidigh pledged that his first priority once he is formally appointed would be to “see where we’re at with Aer Lingus”.

He agreed that restoring the airline’s services to Heathrow was critical to Shannon. About 60,000 people travelled between the two airports in 2019.

Tourist attractions

The businessman told the committee that he favoured transferring responsibility for Shannon’s tourist attractions, including Bunratty and Malahide castles, to their respective local authorities in Co Clare and Co Dublin.

He acknowledged that he was “very disappointed” that the Government has yet to publish a recovery plan for air travel and that the Republic was the last EU state to reopen this summer.

Mr Ó Céidigh argued that Irish airports should work together rather than competing with each other.

He maintained that this should include airports in Belfast and Derry. The incoming Shannon chairman added that he would like to hear all-Ireland agency Tourism Ireland’s plans for marketing airports in the North.

Mr Ó Céidigh stressed that this was a commercial rather than a political point.