Aer Rianta set for battle over control of regional airports

 

The Minister for Transport, Mr Brennan, is to press ahead with controversial plans to remove control of Cork and Shannon airports from Aer Rianta, and to have them managed by new boards.

The move will set the Minister on a collision course with the State-owned Aer Rianta, which has told Mr Brennan it would vigorously oppose such a move.

Mr Brennan is preparing proposals for Cabinet for the establishment of the State boards to run the regional airports. The boards would have strong international and regional representation.

The Minister has not decided whether the boards will be completely independent, or whether they will retains links with Aer Rianta.

Sources said last night his preference was for the boards to operate separately from the State airports authority. A compromise would be to have Aer Rianta oversee the boards but to phase out this arrangement over time.

Mr Brennan hopes to be in a position to seek Government approval for the plan before Christmas.

Mr Brennan met the Aer Rianta board and unions in Dublin on Monday, and outlined his intentions. Sources told The Irish Times a lot of "tough talking" was done at the meeting.

The Minister told directors there was no hidden agenda to downgrade Aer Rianta.

He said his motive was to bring more competition to Irish airports. There was currently a monopoly situation in place which was not the best environment in which to grow business, he argued.

It is the Minister's view that instead of colluding, Cork, Shannon and Dublin would be better split up and to have competition between the three airports.

The Minister told Aer Rianta directors that they would not be permitted to undermine plans in the Programme for Government.

Mr Brennan has been consulting widely on the issue in recent weeks and has spent time in Cork and Shannon talking to airport managements and unions. In the Dáil last week, Mr Brennan gave a strong hint of his intentions when he said he was committed to Shannon being "substantially autonomous". A new board would have one objective - to make Shannon Airport grow. "It is currently operating at probably half of its potential capacity," he said.

An Aer Rianta board source said the proposal to take control of Cork and Shannon airports from Aer Rianta would in effect result in breaking up the authority and there was strong opposition to this.

There are concerns at Government level that Aer Rianta is concentrating too much of its efforts in Dublin, and breaking up the authority will ultimately attract more business and carriers.

Shannon and District Chamber of Commerce has said Shannon Airport "should remain in public ownership but under regional management and control".

Its president, Mr Paddy Purcell, said: "The regional board of directors should be charged by the Minister to focus on the needs and promotion of the west of Ireland region". The board should comprise mainly of aviation experts, business-tourist interests, financial advisors and agencies such as Shannon Development and the IDA.