Why has Stobart Air closed?
It is hard to overstate the scale of the crisis that has hit the aviation sector over the last 15 months. While big airline groups have struggled while bookings fell by as much as 90 per cent, the pandemic hit smaller airlines with less cash reserves even harder.
A couple of months ago, Stobart Air thought it had been sold to a "virtual airline" based in the Isle of Man, but as the Covid crisis dragged on and air traffic did not increase, the funding to support this sale disappeared and the deal was off. "Given the continued impact of the pandemic, which has virtually halted air travel since March 2019, and in the absence of any alternative purchasers or sources of funding, the board of Stobart Air must take the necessary, unavoidable and difficult decision to seek to appoint a liquidator," the company said.
Was the news a surprise?
While it was hardly a surprise that the airline was struggling as the Covid-19 crisis continued, the scale of the problems and the immediate liquidation did appear to catch those in the aviation sector off guard.
What exactly is or was Stobart Air anyway?
It is owned by British aviation and energy group, Esken. It operated the Aer Lingus Regional network and flew passengers from regional airports in Britain, including Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester, to the Republic. Aer Lingus sold the tickets for the flights, collected the revenue and paid its partner a fee. Some of its services fed passengers to Aer Lingus's transatlantic flights from Dublin and were seen as important to the bigger carrier's long-haul business.
What has Aer Lingus said?
It has apologised to customers for the inconvenience caused at such short notice and is now communicating with those affected to advise them of their options.
And exactly what are their options?
It depends on the route. Stobart Air ran flights on behalf of Aer Lingus from Dublin Airport to Kerry, Donegal, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newquay and Manchester. There were also flights from Belfast Airport to Edinburgh, Exeter, East Midlands, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. People due to travel in the days ahead are being told to check the Aer Lingus website for information on refunds or rebooking options. That airline has agreed to operate some of the routes for the days ahead to ensure passengers are not left stranded, while Ryanair has contacted Aer Lingus and offered to take stranded passengers on their flights from Dublin to Glasgow, Manchester, Edinburgh and Birmingham.
Well, that sounds okay?
Arranging alternate bookings on busy routes should not be difficult. It is, however, a different story on some routes, such as Kerry to Dublin and Donegal to Dublin, where no alternatives are available. People with tickets for those routes will be able to get a refund but will then have to work out alternatives that do not involve flying.
What is going to happen in the longer term?
This is a harder question to answer. Profitable routes will most likely be serviced by other airlines, but there are concerns that routes including those from Kerry and Donegal to Dublin will be under threat, something which would significantly damage regional connectivity across the island of Ireland.
Can new carriers not be found for those routes?
It depends on who you listen to. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was upbeat on the issue, saying there is "no shortage of planes and carriers" which might take up the routes. He insisted that "the Government will be working hard to replace those routes".
Well, that’s good news, right?
Irish aviation pioneer Pádraig Ó Céidigh – who set up Aran Air, which subsequently became Stobart Air – was more downbeat about the future prospects for the two routes and for Irish aviation more widely. "It is going to be very difficult. I do not agree there are a whole host of airlines out there waiting to go and do this," he said.
“It will take time. It is not an overnight situation, of pressing a button for an airline to go and do this. This could take a year or two or even more to settle down.”
How many staff are affected by the announcement?
Close to 480 staff are affected, including approximately 120 pilots. Fórsa trade union, which represents 120 cabin crew and pilots with the airline, has called on the Government to “wake up” to the ongoing crisis in the Irish aviation sector following Stobart Air’s announcement.
Has the Government responded to the announcement?
Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said the announcement is "concerning news" for the affected workers and for regional connectivity. "We will be engaging with all stakeholders today [Saturday] and over the comings days to restore connectivity to the regional airports affected by today's announcement," he said.
The Department of Transport said it is currently examining the implications of the cancellation of the Government-funded public service obligation routes operating between Kerry and Dublin and Donegal and Dublin.