I BOARDED a plane last week.
Nothing unusual about that, of course, in normal times.
As recently as 2019, there were 35.5 million passengers coming and going from Cork and Dublin Airports alone - that’s almost 100,000 people a day.
Boarding a plane used to be like visiting the cinema, something the majority of us did regularly, often when the whim took us - literally a flight of fancy.
The pandemic changed all that, and when I flew home to England last week, to reunite with family and friends, it was my first time airborne in almost two years. I was excited, almost giddy, about the trip.
There was something else unusual about that journey. I didn’t fly from Cork Airport. For the first time, I flew out of and into Kerry Airport.
Given my positive experience, and the fact that Cork Airport - in a piece of unfortunate timing - is about to close down completely for two months for essential works just as the nation reaches back-to-normal mode, it’s a journey I imagine I will be doing again.
As it approaches its 60th anniversary, that must be a cause for concern, not just for Cork Airport, but for the entire business community and the population of its city and county.
The public’s attitude to Cork Airport right now is in a familiar place... we’re damn proud of it alright, but we just can’t help thinking at times that it is treated as a poor relation. Is that really the case, or is there a brighter future ahead for it?
First, let me explain why I flew Kerry Airport.
I looked for flights from Cork to the north of England, only to find that, remarkably, given the vast number of people here who have relatives and friends in that part of the world - or do business there, or perhaps even watch Premier League games there - there were none. The only place at the time in the whole of England you could reach from Cork Airport was London.
OK, I thought, the pandemic is still lingering, flight numbers are still well below their usual levels. We still live in unusual times.
However, I found I could fly to my preferred destinations quite easily from Shannon and Dublin, although the two or three hour drives either side would be a pain.
Then someone mentioned Kerry Airport, and I looked it up online. Ryanair had flights to and from Manchester at perfect times and days - and they were cheap too; I paid a grand total of €132 return for me and my son.
The airport was an hour and 10 minute drive from our home near Macroom - a journey time that will be reduced significantly when the new bypass opens, putting it close to the travel time to Cork Airport for people in our locality.
Farranfore, near Tralee, is a dinky airport, so dinky that we could park just a minute’s walk from the entrance. Security was passed in a jiffy and we were sat at the gate waiting for our flight five minutes later.
There are no Covid measures involved in travelling to the UK, and when we flew back to Kerry, we just had to show our Passenger Locator Forms to security staff on our phones - that was it. Literally five minutes after landing we were back in our car ready for the picturesque short trip back to Cork.
I would definitely use Kerry Airport again... indeed I will have no choice when Cork is closed, or if it doesn’t increase its destination options when it reopens.
I want to support our local airport and the workers there, but I am just one customer who has seen a ready alternative to it. How many others have done so, and indeed will do so for the ten weeks when Cork closes its runway for runway resurfacing work from September 13, just as the country is getting back on its feet?
The closure appears poorly timed, and the fear is that, as Ireland and the world slowly starts to recover and return to normality from Covid-19, Cork Airport will be left behind.
But there is another side to this.
The runway work was being lined up anyway, and the onset of the pandemic meant it was fast-tracked. The original work would have disrupted the airport for a longer time, while the closure will mean it can be done swiftly.
It’s also good news for Cork, in the sense that the DAA, previously Dublin Airport Authority, owners of both Cork and Dublin airports, and often the fall guy in any conversation down here about Cork Airport, is investing €40million into it.
Besides, even if the pandemic had somehow been anticipated, and the work had somehow been fast-tracked even quicker, Covid restrictions would have meant building work on it would have been disrupted anyway.
On reflection, the closure is a pain just as the country is opening up, and the optics certainly aren’t great for potential passengers in Cork, but better it is done now while traffic remains low, rather than in the years ahead.
What of the shortage of flight options from Cork? Why was I able to fly to the north of England from anywhere but Cork?
The DAA are hopeful that operators will provide more flights from Cork in the coming weeks, ahead of the closure. By the time the airport reopens on November 22 in time for the Christmas rush, there should be a lot more planes flying in and out and a lot more options.
This is good news, and Kevin Cullinane of the DAA struck a positive note when I spoke to him this week. Before Covid, Cork Airport was the fastest-growing and most punctual in the country, he said, and the workforce are determined to regain these positions as soon as the airport reopens.
“Closing the airport now is quicker, cheaper and safer from a construction and aviation perspective,” said Kevin. “With our physical infrastructure rebuilt, we are fully committed to rebuilding its business and connectivity.”
The people of Cork will hope he is right.
There are some very hard-working people at Cork Airport representing its best interests - and the aviation industry, along with the arts, has suffered the most in this pandemic.
But for years Corkonians have felt it does not get the kind of state backing given to the likes of Shannon Airport; that our politicians, including a Taoiseach who has the airport in his own Cork South Central constituency, could do more to help it grow.
These concerns were put into words before the pandemic by Munster MEP Deirdre Clune, a member of the European Parliament’s Transport & Tourism Committee no less, who warned Ireland must not become a “one airport nation” over-reliant on Dublin, while wondering if there was an equal focus on Cork and Shannon airports in terms of investment.
It’s long been a common gripe here that the DAA puts Dublin’s Airport before Cork’s.
Maybe there is an element of truth in all of this, or maybe it is just Cork being Cork!
But, on balance, it seems there are more reasons to be cheerful than reasons to be fearful about Cork Airport’s future.