Happy 60th: Cork Airport aiming for transatlantic flights after six decades in operation

Cork Airport is today celebrating its 60th birthday. Interim daa group head of communications Kevin Cullinane tells Mary Corcoran the future is bright at Leeside’s international gateway
Happy 60th: Cork Airport aiming for transatlantic flights after six decades in operation

Kevin Cullinane in the Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.

CORK AIRPORT is today celebrating its 60th birthday, and while it won’t welcome a single air passenger today, there is an overwhelming sense of optimism at the airport as it marks the occasion.

The airport officially opened its doors for the first time on October 16, 1961.

Since that date, there has been significant development and transformation, not just at the airport, but in Cork and indeed Ireland.

As foreign travel opened up, and the world became smaller, more and more people passed through the doors of the airport to connect with family and friends abroad, to connect with business and to travel.

Highs and lows economically over that period have seen rises and falls in passenger numbers, with the airport feeling the impacts of recessions and periods of economic boom, foot and mouth outbreaks, and of course, the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think what strikes you is the correlation between social history and Irish history and international history,” said Kevin Cullinane, interim group head of communications at the daa.

“When there have been crises around the world, whether they’ve been oil crises, volcanic ash, economic recessions, aviation goes with those highs and those troughs.”

Aviation was arguably the first sector to be really hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2019, Cork Airport was the country’s fastest-growing airport and welcomed in the region of 2,590,000 passengers.

This figure plummeted to 530,000 in 2020 with traffic declining across all the geographical markets served by Cork Airport.

Kevin Cullinane says they expect that in the region of just 250,000 people will travel through the airport this year.

By next year, they hope this figure will increase dramatically.

“Looking optimistically to next year, we’re hoping we’ll be back up approximately at 1.8 million passengers,” explained Mr Cullinane.

Achieving that growth won’t happen overnight and significant work is underway to try to attract more business to Cork Airport.

On Monday, a team from the airport travelled to Milan for a routes conference to meet with air services.

Kevin Cullinane likened the exercise to “speed dating with the airlines”.

At the event, representatives attended more than 20 meetings with prospective and existing airline customers where they made the business case for routes to operate out of Cork.

Prior to the pandemic, Cork Airport was served by nine airlines operating to more than 50 destinations.

“We went down as low as two [destinations] at the start of this year,” explained Mr Cullinane.

Investment

Last month, Ryanair announced a $200m investment in Cork Airport and a full recovery of its pre-pandemic passenger capacity with the reopening of its two aircraft bases and said it would bring 20 routes to Cork. It has since also announced plans to bring services from Cork to Venice and Naples.

Spanish low-cost airline Vueling has announced a new Cork to Paris-Orly service.

Passenger numbers “will ramp up fairly significantly” next year, said Mr Cullinane detailing the recent announcements.

He said they are optimistic there will be further announcements from other carriers over the coming weeks.

 Kevin Cullinane at the Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.
Kevin Cullinane at the Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.

“A lot is happening and we have a fair wind behind us. We came into the pandemic with nine scheduled airlines. We were down to two at the start of this year, with just Aer Lingus flying to Heathrow and KLM flying to Amsterdam. We could have up to 11 scheduled airlines next year. The recovery will accelerate from March next year and we’re confident that we can rebuild back better from next summer onwards,” he said.

“I think it’s going to take us probably three or four years to get back to the lofty heights we were at in 2018 and 2019. Without Covid we probably would be looking at three million-plus passengers, we haven’t been at those levels since 2006, 2007, 2008.

“We’re confident that Cork, and the south of Ireland has a very strong domestic passenger base. There’s 1.6 million people living within a 90-minute drive of Cork Airport. Plus for inbound tourism, we’re uniquely positioned at both the start of the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East-they’re two of the five international propositions that Tourism Ireland are marketing.”

Cork to New York

Transatlantic travel is also on the agenda, and Mr Cullinane said that they expect to see transatlantic travel out of Cork Airport returning within the next three to four years.

While the length of the airport’s runway was oft-cited as a reason as to why passengers couldn’t fly from Cork to the US, Mr Cullinane said that Norwegian had proved that the existing runway is of sufficient length to fly from Cork to the east coast of the United States.

He pointed to the fact that with an increased focus on sustainability, manufacturers are also keen to ensure aircraft can fly on less fuel.

Mr Cullinane said that as part of the routes conference this week, the team highlighted the demands for additional routes out of Cork, including transatlantic.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen next year but hopefully within three to four years we’ll see Cork back in the transatlantic market.

“The urban myth that the runway was too short has been disproven. It can take you to the east coast in the United States.

“Our medium-term ambition is to get a service from Cork to New York, within the next five-year period,” he said.

UK travel

Closer to home, travel to and from the UK remains important going forward.

“I think there’s still very strong economic and social ties between Ireland and the UK. Prior to the pandemic, when you include London and the UK routes, two-thirds of our passengers were flying to UK destinations in both directions,” said Mr Cullinane.

 Luggage trolleys in the Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.
Luggage trolleys in the Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.

He noted that with the advent of Brexit, Irish companies have been encouraged to look beyond the UK to expand their export markets, but said he hoped this would lead to “the size of the cake being expanded rather than a little less”. The UK is also a vital inbound tourism market.

“We’ve very many social ties that are common to the UK. We share a common language. We share some historical traditions and obviously, a lot of us have family and friends in the UK so I think that will come back stronger.”

Role in the region

Mr Cullinane said that as it faces its 60th birthday, Cork Airport is very aware of the role it needs to play in bringing more people to Ireland over the coming years, and says that while the local tourism sector was sustained by staycations this year, it is necessary to bring in more tourists going forward.

“We’re critically aware of our role as an economic enabler for the region. We want to bring inbound tourists from France, Germany and Italy, and right across the continent into Cork to fill more hotel rooms, to fill more of our experiences in terms of touristic propositions and attractions, going forward. Our partners in that crusade, Tourism Ireland, haven’t been able to get out into the market up until very recently, again, to market Ireland abroad.

“As an entry point onto the island of Ireland, we’ll have a critical role to play in the economic recovery, which is already underway, but we will obviously want to be a catalyst in that particularly for tourism, hospitality and for foreign direct investment, and businesses in the Cork and South of Ireland region, that they can reconnect again with customers, with head offices, with clients, abroad.”

Mr Cullinane said they expect that business travel to and from Cork Airport will be slower to pick up than leisure travel.

“Twenty percent of our passengers would have been flying for business reasons before the pandemic and that essentially decreased to zero. Up until July of this year Zoom and Microsoft Team calls have taken the place of that but people are now realising you can’t shake hands over Zoom or over Microsoft Teams. People are keen to get back out and we’ve started to see, obviously, with destinations like Amsterdam and Heathrow being served by Aer Lingus and KLM, and as we can get more of those hub airports served again that we can start to reconnect to people once again.”

Project runway

Of course, none of this can happen without the airport reopening to traffic, with November 22 the date which will see flights resume following the completion of a major project to rebuild the airport’s runway.

The project, which also includes upgrading of the airport’s approach, airfield and ground lighting, runway edge and centreline lighting together with all of its drainage and ducting systems, was initially planned for next year.

“We brought forward the decision to do the runway now [over ten weeks], rather than what was going to be the end of 2022 and into 2023, when we would have had to do the works at night,” explained Kevin Cullinane.

Under that plan, the airport would have closed each evening at 10pm to carry out works between 11pm and 4am, before resuming services again at 6am.

“We would have had to do that every day and every night for 10 months. We looked at the pros and cons of that versus making a very hard decision to close for 10 weeks where we could do it safer from an aeronautical and a construction point of view, and do it cheaper and reopen for what we hope will be a bigger bump for Christmas,” he said.

Of course, Mr Cullinane admitted that it is somewhat surreal that the airport is actually closed to flights as it marks its 60 anniversary.

“Ten years ago, we brought out a fabulous coffee table book written by the two O’Drisceoil brothers — 50 Years Have Flown: The History of Cork Airport — and I can’t believe how quickly the last 10 years have flown. Literally.

 Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.
Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.

“I suppose if times had been different, without Covid, we might have looked to have added a few more chapters to that tale. Instead, we’re giving people the gift of a brand new runway as a 60th birthday present. It’s a once in a generation project so it is surreal to be closed on the 16th of October, for what will be the 60th anniversary of the airport opening, but we’re investing €40 million at the moment, we’re investing for the future and I think hopefully, the future’s as promising as the past has been.”

Despite the optimistic outlook, Mr Cullinane does admit that challenges lie ahead and it could be some time before employment levels are restored at the airport.

Funding is a key priority.

“For the first time in its 60 year history Cork Airport secured exchequer funding for the runway project (€10 million),” Mr Cullinane said adding that they had also availed of the wage subsidy scheme.

“We’ve been very grateful for the Government support,” he said.

However, he said in the future they will need to and have been putting “very attractive incentive schemes on the table” to get airlines back to Cork.

“We’ve made the point that Ireland is at the western periphery of Europe so we do have longer flight distances to connect with continental Europe, and every airport in Europe is now vying for aircrafts coming out of the fog of the pandemic so we have to be competitive.

“We will need multi-year support from the government.”

He added: “Bearing in mind we were serving over 50 destinations before the pandemic. We went down as low as two at the start of this year. We’re now back more than halfway over that mark, but we want to get back up to those heights. We will need to obviously invest heavily with airlines to get them back into Cork, particularly airlines that aren’t based in Ireland,” he said.

Across the daa, staff numbers at Dublin and Cork Airport have reduced by around 1,000 people through the voluntary severance packages, career breaks, reduced hours since 2020.

The vast majority of these roles were in Dublin, with Cork Airport’s headcount down by around 30 to 40 people.

“It’s been sad to see colleagues and friends go. There are hidden consequences to Covid, it’s not just the last of flights and routes,” Mr Cullinane said.

He said that staff numbers are likely to remain stable until the full recovery manifests.

 Arrivals area in the Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.
Arrivals area in the Passenger terminal at Cork International Airport. Pic; Larry Cummins.

The impacts have been wider and Mr Cullinane pointed to the closure of much of the services at the airport from the shops and restaurants to the bank and currency exchange.

He said that while around 190 people are directly employed at the airport, a further 1,900 have airport access badges including ground handlers, fuelers, food and beverage companies.

“A lot of people depend on Cork Airport. We did an economic impact study in 2019, which estimated that 10,500 people depend on the airport, either directly or indirectly, for employment. It does play a significant role in the GDP of the region.”

For now, the focus is on getting the airport ready to re-open with much work happening behind the scenes. Overall, a €40 million of capital investment is underway. Security systems are being upgraded at a cost of €12 million.

“We’ve obviously availed of this 10 week period to do a whole deep clean of the airport -every lift shaft, every escalator. Every timber floor has been well oiled, every shelf dusted down so you know hopefully when people come back, they’ll see that there’s been a spring clean of sorts across the terminal. All of our car parks are relined and painted so we can’t wait to get people back, back flying again and in the air.

“There’s nothing we like more than seeing passengers coming in the front door to take off on a flight or arriving back in. The one thing everyone here is looking forward to this Christmas is seeing people embrace again on the concourse when family and friends arrive home to celebrate the festivities this year. We’ve missed that and you know, we’re all looking forward to seeing that this year.”

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