Eight years on from the cessation by Aer Lingus of its Shannon to Heathrow route, a shameful decision that provoked outrage locally before eventually being reversed, there is good reason to for the Mid-West region to be on high alert once again.
Aer Lingus has already rejected one takeover bid from the IAG, the parent company of British Airways, on the basis that it undervalued the national carrier. Undeterred, IAG is pursuing the deal with vigour. The big carrot is, of course, the extremely valuable Heathrow slots held by Aer Lingus and it’s anyone’s guess what plans the stalking IAG has for these assets, should it prove successful in completing a deal.
While the Shannon to Heathrow route has been successfully re-established after the airline’s misjudged decision in switching the slots to Belfast – a move which made no commercial sense – there can be no question but that British Airways could – if allowed – find a more profitable home for the slots from within its long-haul network. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.
The busy Dublin to Heathrow service is unlikely to be adversely affected by any takeover, so the airports that are eyeing the current situation with the most concern are Shannon and Cork, which is also heavily reliant on its Heathrow connectivity.
Aer Lingus, however, cannot sell its Heathrow slots without the approval of 75% of shareholder votes at an EGM. This gives the Irish Government, which owns 25.1% of the company, an effective veto over such a disposal.
Politicians proved impotent when it came to looking after Shannon’s interests last time and this newspaper was scathing about the part played the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. He appeared to see the gift by Aer Lingus to Belfast, at Shannon’s expense, as acceptable – even desirable. He seemed more concerned with copperfastening his personal reputation as a key player in the peace process than protecting the interests of hundreds of thousands of citizens in the country he was elected to govern.
An Irish Government must not let Shannon down again over Heathrow. Assurances must be provided swiftly that, in the event of a sale, the majority of the slots will continue to be used to provide daily connectivity for all three of the main Irish airports.
One cannot overestimate the crucial importance to this region of the Heathrow service. While the Ryanair flights to Stansted and Gatwick are very valuable, Heathrow is the world’s airport and the choice of the business community in particular.
Shannon has taken some great steps forward over the past two years, and that progress cannot be jeopardised by the potential consequences of this deal.
All politicians in the Mid-West region – along with fellow representatives in Cork – should stand together now to make it abundantly clear that no deal will be possible without these assurances being in place.