Management at Cork Airport have defended the decision to close the airport for the next 10 weeks to allow reconstruction of the airport's main runway, saying it made sense to fully close the airport between September and November due to the drop in passenger numbers because of Covid-19.
Cork Airport head of communications Kevin Cullinane confirmed to The Irish Times that the airport closed on Monday and will remain shut until November 22nd to allow the reconstruction work on the airport's main runway – runway 16/34 – to be completed in time for the busy Christmas period.
The decision to close the airport fully for 10 weeks to facilitate a €40 million revamp has prompted criticism from the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA), whose CEO Pat Dawson said his 110 members were disappointed the work was being carried out just as the tourism sector was beginning to improve.
“We have had many cancellations from customers who didn’t want the hassle of travel to Dublin and the question has to be asked, ‘Could this work not have been done during the summer?’ Doing it now just as tourism is beginning to recover is effectively extending the pandemic for people in Cork.”
But Mr Cullinane said the reconstruction of the airport’s main runway will be the fastest large-scale construction project undertaken in the State in recent years – spanning 12 months from funding approval last November to the completion of the work and the reopening of the runway on November 22nd next.
Cork Airport secured funding of €10 million from the Department of Transport with the balance of the €40 million investment coming from Cork Airport’s parent company, DAA plc. The project will create some 250 construction and supply jobs over the next three months or so, said Mr Cullinane.
He said that Cork Airport followed a comprehensive EU procurement process commencing last November, while management at the airport engaged with key stakeholders such as airlines and business interests as well as the ITAA to seek their views on the proposed closure.
“The majority of our airline customers were strongly in favour of the runway work being done this year. Most informed stakeholders appreciate this reconstruction project is vital for the future of the airport and that our aim is to complete it with the least possible disruption and at the lowest cost.”
He said that Cork Airport also consulted over a dozen other international airports in the UK and continental Europe which have completed similar runway projects in recent years.
The reconstruction of the main runway was originally scheduled to be undertaken over nine months in late 2022 and early 2023 but, with passenger numbers down 97 per cent at the height of the pandemic, it made prudent business sense to fast-track the project while the airport was extremely quiet.
“This will save considerable time and money, is much safer in construction and aeronautical terms, and impacts a fraction of the annualised 240,000 passengers we predict in 2021 rather than the 1.8 million we predict for 2022 or the 2.6 million to 2.8 million we would have in a normal year.”
Mr Cullinane said Cork Airport’s only jet-capable runway was built in 1961 and was originally 1,883 metres long, but was extended by a further 300 metres in 1989. Since then, however, it has only undergone significant investment in 1999 when an overlay was put on the original runway.
Mr Cullinane said that typically Cork Airport has more than 22,000 commercial landings annually while it also facilitates thousands of smaller aircraft each year and, like any busy runway, will develop deep structural cracks over time, with foreign object debris becoming an ongoing potential hazard.
Mr Cullinane said runways are subject to heavy regulation from both the Irish Aviation Authority and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. He said Cork Airport was undertaking "these works in good faith to remediate and upgrade the infrastructure".
The work on the Cork runway will involve a 150mm structural overlay including pavement repairs as well as an upgrading of airfield ground lighting in terms of both runway edge and centreline lighting to LED (Light Emitting Diodes) and the replacement of secondary cabling and transformers.
He said that the replacement of the airfield electrical systems, ducts and pits which are all between 20 and 30 years old and the resultant electrical upgrade will reduce Cork Airport’s runway electrical carbon footprint by 70 per cent.
Among the groups Cork Airport management consulted with regarding the closure was Cork Chamber, and the chamber's director of public affairs, Thomas McHugh, said that the body had not received any complaints from any of its members, local or multinational, about the closure.