Iconic world airport in Ireland
Uncertain future for Shannon
It is one of the world’s iconic airports, but its future is in grave doubt.
Shannon International Airport on the West Coast of Ireland has survived many threats to its existence since its first appearance on the aviation world map in the late 1940s. Then, it provided an aquatic landing strip for the Flying Boats that crossed the Atlantic from the USA. They could taxi safely on the calm wide expanse of the Shannon River estuary, and their needs were served by on-shore facilities, including a radio station and a hotel, developed by the fledgling Irish government.
When flying boats gave way to conventional aircraft, an airport was built close to the western bank of the Shannon and took its name from Ireland’s longest river. It became a popular fueling stop for trans-Atlantic flights and Pan-Am, TWA, and BOAC all used its facilities, often accommodating passengers overnight if weather conditions over the North Atlantic were unfavorable. A restaurant, which provided meals for transit passengers, became a flagship for Irish cuisine and was the first place in the world to serve Irish Coffees. It was also home to the world’s first Duty Free Airport Store.
In the early 1950s, the arrival of jet aircraft, which could fly direct to North America without a fueling stop, threatened the survival of the young airport, and an Irish government minister predicted that "the runways would become a home for rabbits."
Shannon’s then CEO, Brendan O’Regan, responded by offering a free Irish holiday to transit passengers and developed a host of new visitor attractions in the region, including the famous Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. A Duty Free Industrial Zone was developed on the airport campus and was soon employing more than 20,000 people, thanks to a new Irish government policy, which offered grants and tax incentives to foreign-owned export industries. The Zone remains active to this day.
In recent times, the fortunes of Shannon Airport have see-sawed. It boomed during the Celtic Tiger years on the back of record visitor numbers to Ireland and a burgeoning domestic economy, but it has since been badly hit by the recession and a downturn in Irish tourism. Control of the airport was switched from the local Shannon Development Company to Dublin Airport Authority, but this has failed to halt the decline in business. Indeed, local hoteliers and tourism operators claim that Dublin control has made matters worse.
The government is now considering a u-turn, which would involve handing Shannon back to local control. It asked consultants, Booz, to look at the options, and the subsequent report suggests such a move. The airport handled 1.8 million passengers last year, including thousands of US military who pass through en-route to Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. These numbers are likely to fall somewhat following the US troop withdrawal from Iraq.
The difficulty facing the government in any move to transfer operations is the heavy burden of debt being carried by Shannon and its annual losses, which are running at around $12 million. The Minister for Transport and Tourism, Leo Varadkar, wants to reduce or eliminate the subsidization of Irish regional airports, and his cash-strapped government is unlikely to sanction on-going support. The answer could lie in boosting passenger numbers and attracting new regular flights, but this is also likely to prove difficult in a highly-competitive marketplace.
It is not, however, the first time that Shannon has had to re-invent itself, and locals are confident that they can save the airport if they are allowed get on with the job without interference (and possibly with some financial help) from Dublin. A resource center for international foreign aid, a freight hub for Europe, and a facility for private aircraft are just some of the ideas that have been floated, as Shannon once again attempts to keep the rabbits at bay.