He may be carrying excess baggage over his shoulder and around the gut but Santa Claus was afforded the warmest of welcomes on a series of flights out of Shannon with Ryanair at the weekend.
Up to 2,000 lucky children managed to get their hands on the most in-demand tickets of the season - for a pre-Christmas appointment with Mr Claus 15,000 feet above Clew Bay. Such was the demand for free 45-minute Santa flights that they had all been booked within 12 minutes of becoming available online a fortnight ago.
This is the second year in which Shannon and Ryanair have teamed up to lay on a Christmas treat for children. A nominal fee of €10 per booking is going towards two local charities working with disabled children - St Gabriel’s School and Centre in Dooradoyle and the Clare Crusaders.
“It was absolutely magical for the children and families from start to finish,” said Kate Sheahan, St Gabriel’s.
Accompanying the St Gabriel’s group of 20 children and 20 parents were a number of youngsters who attend the Red Hill School for autistic children in Patrickswell and the Mid-West School for the Hearing Impaired.
Among them was Fergal Archer from Ballinacurra - who attends St Gabriel’s Centre for speech therapy and occupational therapy and for whom last Saturday was his first time on a plane.
“I am so glad we were able to go. It was brilliantly organised by the people at Shannon,” said Fergal’s dad and namesake.
Siblings Cillian, Isobel and Rebecca were brought along for the day out and while there may have been no room on the plane for them, “they weren’t disappointed at all because of the craic they get out of seeing their brother enjoying himself,” said dad.
It wasn’t all about the flights - of which there were seven both on Saturday and Sunday - as Shannon put on everything from puppet shows to discos before boarding.
“Fergal had a ball running around the place for an hour or so before getting on. It was his first time on a plane and I was a bit apprehensive myself but he actually loved it.”
One child about who there were no such worries was eight-year-old Dylan Tierney from Croagh.
“He loves anything fast, just like his daddy,” said mum Lorraine, married to Martin, a motorcycle officer with the Garda Traffic Corps.
“The staff were amazing and fair play to Shannon and to Ryanair. You hear a lot of people giving out about them but we have had nothing but good experiences with them and Dylan,” said Lorraine.
“Santa came around to all the kids on the plane. And when they came off the flight, there was a fire engine there for them as an extra treat so they were able to sit into that and get photos taken.”
Ms Sheahan said staff at Shannon had shown great care and sensitivity in making children with special needs feel welcome - in terms of wheelchair boarding and through touches like making the presidential suite available as a quiet area away from the disco beats.
“And the Ryanair crew and the pilot were all wonderful as well. We are so grateful to them and can’t thank them enough,” she said.
Shannon Airport CEO Neil Pakey also paid tribute to Shannon staff who had given up their weekend to volunteer and make the day extra special.
The Santa flights mark the start of a busy Christmas period which Shannon expects will see passenger numbers increase by 15% on last year.
“It’s a great time to be at an airport as whether passengers are outbound or inbound. There’s typically a homecoming happening and that creates a magical mood,” Mr Pakey said.