LIMERICK’S ability to attract and retain investment will be seriously hampered if Shannon loses its links with Heathrow in the wake of a takeover by IAG, according to one of the region’s leading industrialists.
Bill Doherty, vice-president EMEA, with Cook Medical, said that while the business issues may be different, “nothing has changed” since 2007 in terms of the importance of the Heathrow slots to the region.
Mr Doherty was to the forefront of a coalition of business, tourism, trade union and political interests which succeeded in having the Heathrow connections restored in 2008, a year after Aer Lingus transferred them from Shannon to Belfast.
“The main issues are very different in that last time around it was a decision by Aer Lingus to pull the Heathrow route whereas this time it is a possible takeover of Aer Lingus by IAG. That is a business transaction and we wouldn’t have any concern over that in the usual run of things and it is only where it might possibly affect Shannon that the worries might arise.
“For us, really nothing has changed in the importance of that Heathrow route. I travel on it myself regularly and it is always full or almost full. It makes far more sense for us to fly out of Shannon when the connections work out. And Heathrow is the only way out of Shannon apart from the US flights, which are equally important.”
Cook Medical is one of Limerick’s biggest and most valued employers. Among its 800 staff are not just the manufacturing team producing medical devices for the global market but a range of professionals who need to travel through Heathrow.
“We have a large marketing department; a large engineering group who are flying in and out of Europe all the time to meet with doctors in countries all over Europe and all over the world; not to mention our HR people and all kinds of other people. So we have a lot of people travelling on a daily basis and that is our main route. If it were to disappear, that would mean everybody would have to drive to Dublin,” Mr Doherty said.
“And there is the worry that if, in the longer term, you can’t get that kind of connectivity there is always concern that functions could be located to somewhere where you do have better connectivity
“The worry would be if those slots, for whatever reason, were to be reassigned away from Shannon or indeed from Cork, then they are gone forever pretty much and that connection into Heathrow is the most important airport in western Europe – certainly if you are sitting in Ireland it is,” Mr Doherty said.
Limerick Travel boss Tony Brazil is also closely monitoring the takeover battle and has concerns over what it could potentially mean for tourism and business in general.
“It is complex and we will have to see what happens when they turn the cards face up,” said Mr Brazil, a man with vast experience in the travel business.
“I am a bit concerned as I read somewhere that Willie Walsh was supposedly giving a five-year guarantee on the slots. Five years is nothing in the life of an airline and Willie Walsh is 10 years in charge of IAG. On the law of averages, chief executives nor airlines don’t last longer than 15 or 20 years so even if Willie Walsh goes around with an Irish flavour, the fella coming behind him could sweep all of that away.
“The one thing to say about is there was a big lesson learned in 2007 when they took out Shannon in favour of Belfast. That saga ran from the August Bank Holiday weekend right through and including the October Bank Holiday – it was never out of the headlines or off the TV. I don’t think the government wants an irritant like that to be bubbling away.
“On the one hand, it could be very good if British Airways want to ramp up their connectivity to London and boost long-haul flights. That would be great. On the other hand, if they see more money elsewhere, it could be very serious for Ireland and certainly for Shannon.
“Another thing people don’t remember is that a huge element of the business on both the Cork and the Shannon route in summer time are Americans making their way into Ireland, Mr Brazil said.
“There is something close to 20 cities in America flying into Heathrow that are not served into Ireland. And people holidaying from those places take flights into Heathrow and backtrack into Ireland. That is a huge conduit for bringing people into the west of Ireland and that is where the Shannon route is so precious for tourism,” Mr Brazil said.
Editorial, page 18