AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY

 

ONLY two questions come to mind in the matter of Chuck Feeney and his generosity to Irish institutions. One is: why on earth the name of this column never entered his extremely able mind when he came to handing out the boodle; and the other is, is there something not a little odd that such vast fortunes can be made in duty-free sales?

The answer to the two questions are: (A) I haven't a clue; and (B) No. Duty-free is not merely a licence to sell without duty on the goods you are selling; it is also a licence for the seller to pocket most of the difference between the actual cost of the goods and what the cost would have been had duty been added.

The primary beneficiaries of duty-free shops are the shopkeepers themselves. Like most shopkeepers, they will dress themselves up as philanthropists - which is what Chuck Feeney finally became - but they are, in fact, only doing what we all would do in the circumstances, which is to make as much money as possible.

Ideal locations

An airport is an ideal place to sell anything. There is seldom any competition, so you pretty much set your own price and hope that people will not remember the prices of the articles in the Real World Out There. The appearance of cheapness on some articles tends to rub off on everything for sale, so that bars of chocolate or sides of salmon, which are not affected by duty-free, can be charged at normal shop prices, or even higher, without the customer knowing.

And what customers you get in airports! The shopkeeper's delight: stressed, tired, bored, and normally in the upper-income group, they are the people for whom Brown Thomas would annually burn virgins to see enter its store a couple of days a year. But to have such people obliged to pass through a monopoly shopping area 365 days a year is what might be termed a shopkeeper's moist reverie.

Tottering with fatigue, plucking their hair out with stress, baffled by currency differences or stupefied with boredom waiting for their connection, there is nothing they will not do to repress the tiredness, express the stress or suppress the boredom. And the best way to do that is to shop in the place where one should never shop at all: in a monopoly outlet.

You know the reek of monopoly. It was in the air last time I was bin the airport in Paris. There was no gin for sale. None. They had run out of it, and the assistants were too busy or too bone-idle to restock it. Money was going to be spent anyway, and madly: there was not a bottle of spirits or champagne which was not more expensive than in supermarkets in France. Only the idiot buys there; but as the owners of duty-frees everywhere can tell you, in airports there is no shortage of idiots.

Demented traveller

The only reason I ever visit duty-frees is to get Bombay Gin, the best gin in the world, whose manufacturers love it so much they begrudge selling it to anybody but the demented traveller. It is virtually unavailable anywhere outside duty-frees: certainly I have never seen it for sale in Ireland. And even though I swear I will never ever buy anything other than Bombay Gin, I still find myself queuing at the cashier's, a Dougal-like idiot's grin on my face, with a girder of Toblerone, a bottle of over-priced wine, a pair of binoculars (I already have three at home) and a side of salmon, Just In Case.

If a man of iron will like myself, almost Cistercian in my aestheticism, cannot resist the temptation to be tempted, how can the rest of you poor unfortunates manage? And is it any wonder that Chuck Feeney made so much money? Or is it totally surprising that Aer Rianta made £37.6 million profit last year?

It is not. What is surprising is that Dublin Airport makes no contribution to the rates of Fingal County Council. Why? Because it answers to the Minister, who up until recently was Michael Lowry, whose departure from ministerial life is a crippling blow from which public life might never recover. And governments have the extraordinary habit of creating different rules for themselves whenever they enter the commercial arena. So that even though Dublin Airport is the biggest employer in North Co Dublin, and uses resources far beyond those of any other company, it uses them free; and yes, it pays a dividend to the Government, but that should hardly be a matter for gratitude. Airport duty-frees make lots of money. Ask Chuck.

But they also make money from landing fees; since we own Aer Rianta, should it not be a simple matter to discover the real cost of landing fees at Dublin Airport? Aer Rianta's chief executive, Derek Keogh, says that Dublin Airport's fees are the lowest in Europe, but Dr Tony Ryan of Ryanair and Sir Michael Bishop of British Midland insist they are the most expensive. There is a truth in there somewhere, but I haven't got a clue what it is.

Roll on 1999

Aer Rianta has been uttering gloomy warnings about the consequences of the ending of duty-free in 1999. Roll on 1999, for then the fiction of cheaper goods will finally be ended. It is surprising that the EU is waiting so long before ending what is in a fact a series of monopolistic government-protected profit-factories throughout the Union.

Fair competition is one of the key-principles of a union which at its core is economics. Is there any legal justification for the Government, which owns Aer Rianta and excuses it from paying rates, vetoing a plan by Ryanair to set up in competition with its own offspring?

Is that not nepotism, writ big, son? Yes, daddy.

All the duty-free monopolies have been warning that air fares will rocket when duty-free is abolished. I take that with the same solemn gravity with which I took the dire prognostications about the mandatory stop-over being essential for Shannon and, the West. Both would assuredly perish without it, and civilisation would falter and die.

What has actually happened? Shannon Airport has just had its best year ever, with revenue up 12 per cent. What is the lesson? The lesson is: Never listen to the excuses of monopolies. Ever.