Vision 2020 at the people’s airport

Robert Grealis, CEO, Ireland West Airport Knock

Robert Grealis

Robert Grealis

More words have been written and spoken on Ireland West Airport Knock than any other Irish airport. Everyone has a tale to tell, a memory to recall, an opinion to offer — and all with the same gusto that characterised the man behind the ‘people’s airport’, Monsignor James Horan.

From its conception in the 1970s to its birth in 1981 as Connaught Regional Airport when the first sod was cut, the tenacity and vision that was Monsignor Horan has passed on a legacy of determination to succeed that is palpable. The airport was re-baptised as Horan International Airport to commemorate the founder’s death in 1986, before being finally rebranded in 2005 as Ireland West Airport Knock.

The airport however is known almost universally as Knock Airport.

Coined by singer Christy Moore as ‘the miracle airport’, positioned on top of the remote Barr Na Cuige Mountain in the Charlestown-Kilkelly (12 miles from Knock village ) area of east Mayo, the airport was an unlikely proposition from the off.

RTE’s Jim Fahy’s famous line, asked of the Monsignor: “What exactly is going on here?” echoed a national incredulity. Only those who understood that Ireland’s west/northwest region had nothing to lose and everything to gain by building an international airport knew that this vital piece of infrastructure was an answer to economic stagnation and widespread emigration. The airport would also provide access for pilgrims to the Marian shrine at Knock, and reconnect Ireland’s diaspora.

The spirits of the media and politically-savvy monsignor, who had already built a basilica in Knock and brought Pope John Paul II to the shrine in 1979, must have soared on that wet autumn morning of 1985 when the inaugural flights of three Aer Lingus Boeing aircraft took to the skies on a pilgrimage to Rome.

Only a year later new Irish airline, Ryanair, began its London-Luton route, and Castlebar-born Charlie Haughey, the monsignor’s co-conspirator, officially opened the airport for business in May 1986. Monsignor Horan died later that year in Lourdes, but lived long enough to see his dream realised. His was the first coffin to pass through the airport of his own creation.

Award-winning ‘miracle’ airport

Over the past two decades Ireland West Airport Knock has dedicated itself to opening up the west/northwest region to new airlines, business, and social infrastructure. As a result, the airport has twice been voted Ireland’s best regional airport by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland, has received the best customer services award from Easyjet, and most recently the Federation Aeronautique Internationale group award.

The airport understands the potential benefits that air access can bring to this region, and has embarked upon an ambitious strategy — Vision 2020, along with its associated masterplan to achieve this.

Located at the crossroads of two national roads — the N17 and N5 — and close to the Western Rail Corridor, Ireland West Airport Knock is ideally positioned for take-off. In 2005 the airport supported more than 900 jobs and a tourism spend of €62 million in the region. This year these figures are expected to rise to 1,100 jobs and €80 million tourism spend.

“Ireland West Airport Knock’s USPs [unique selling propositions] are tangible,” enthuses CEO Robert Grealis.

“We pride ourselves on convenience, friendliness, and familiarity for our customers. Our experienced team are very ‘people-focused’, and they handle all types of passengers and situations in a busy working environment.”

One of the major plusses of flying from Ireland West Airport Knock is its competitive car park charges, which do help to offset the additional cost of the €10 passenger development fee.

“A key aim in the present development strategy is that we reduce queues, become more family-friendly, and more attractive to business users. Additional features in our new terminal will help us achieve this.

“We understand the importance of direct international air access to business in the region and to attracting foreign direct investment.

“Our customer base comprises 87 per cent tourism/leisure traffic and 11 per cent business. Where we differ from the neighbouring regional airports of Galway and Sligo is that 97 per cent of our business is international.”

Total passenger traffic through the airport was fewer than 200,000 until 2003. Changes in the board and in management saw this figure rise substantially each year, and 650,000 passengers are now projected to fly this year. By 2010 this figure is set to rise to one million under Vision 2020.

“We have a realistic population catchment area of around 900,000 within a 90-minute drive of the airport. This represents around 21 per cent of Ireland’s population, 70 per cent of whom choose Ireland West Airport Knock as their preferred airport.

Connecting two million passengers across the globe by 2020

“We have set clear goals and objectives,” explains Grealis. “By 2020 we aim to connect two million passengers through a network of routes to the UK, Europe, North America, and onwards across the globe.”

Currently Ireland West Airport Knock carriers include bmibaby and Ryanair, which service the UK’s main conurbations. Seventeen holiday destinations are serviced by various tour operators and airlines, and crucially for the west/northwest region, the Ireland West Airport Knock-Dublin PSO route has been re-established by Aer Arann starting October 1. A daily Ryanair service to Liverpool is also poised for take-off at the end of October.

Internal and external market research regularly analyses route potential, regional impact, and customer satisfaction levels, and benchmarks Ireland West Airport Knock against similar providers.

€200 million tourism spend projected by 2020

Projected research figures also tell us that if Ireland West Airport Knock’s vision is as good as Monsignor Horan’s, then the entire west/northwest region is set to benefit economically by 2020 to the tune of €200 million in tourism spend, create 2,000-3,000 jobs, and become the employer of choice within the region.

Currently Ireland West Airport Knock employs 140 staff directly, with an additional 50 indirectly employed through services like the Garda and immigration, Met Éireann, Customs & Excise, and car hire companies.

“In 2007 the Government granted the airport €27.1 million towards capital expenditure of €48 million. This represents the single largest investment in the history of the airport, and along with our own funding, is allowing us to pursue infrastructural safety and security projects. We can now develop facilities to maintain the airport to the highest international standards and hopefully surpass customer expectations.”

These projects, that regular Ireland West Airport Knock passengers are only too aware of, include apron extensions, terminal building expansions of check-in space, departure lounge, and security screening, equipment and systems upgrade, and enhancements in a number of technical areas.

“By implementing CAT II ILS on runway 27, we are reducing the incidence of diversion due to fog and low visibility, and we’ve already made improvements in a number of other areas,” explains Grealis.

The airport’s group MD, Liam Scollan, oversees two divisions: the airport itself, of which Grealis is CEO, and Business Partnerships, which is responsible for developing external business opportunities around the airport, and is headed by director Enda Candon.

Business park earmarked for airport land

Business Partnership’s plans to regenerate the region extend beyond the airport and onto 200 adjacent acres that have been earmarked for a business park. It is envisaged that this will act as a draw to large corporations and SMEs, which can benefit from Ireland West Airport Knock’s location and facilities.

Since 1991 Ireland West Airport Knock has been owned and overseen by a voluntary trust. Unlike many other major airports, it has no private investors, is not a PLC, and all profits are re-invested into the company for the benefit of the region.

Trust members reflect a broad spectrum of interests and the trust itself exists purely to benefit this region. Members include the Mayo county manager, the Archbishop of Tuam, the parish priest of Knock, and representatives from business and the travel industry.

“We are a true community airport and are very conscious of the need to enhance the regional and local community we serve.”

CO2 neutral within the next five years

“For instance, we aim to become CO2 neutral within the next five years by implementing new technologies and by changing the way we operate. These measures will help enhance the local environment, and in turn will create local economic spin-offs and business opportunities within the region.

“Our energy audit included an analysis of the carbon footprint of staff’s travelling methods to and from work, and we are researching methods to offset this.

“Ireland West Airport Knock is on schedule, but we have a way to go. The airport is targeting the re-instatement of services to North America, which were so successful. With 93 per cent load factors on New York and 86 per cent on Boston scheduled flights last year, we have proven that there is a demand for transatlantic flights, and that Ireland West Airport Knock is more than capable of meeting that demand. In the medium to long term the airport will consider extending the runway to service other long-haul flights.”

Grealis is a Mayo man — Ballycroy near Achill to be exact, and is clearly proud to be part of the regeneration of the west/northwest region. One year into his role as CEO, his focus is on continuing to develop the services needed to achieve the goals of Vision 2020.

“When I left college in the 1980s I had to emigrate to London to find work. While being grateful for the invaluable experience gained, I always regretted that I had to leave, but now Ireland West Airport Knock is directly influencing the region’s development and its ability to provide employment — something that didn’t exist in the 1980s.”

The airport’s rebranding and name change to Ireland West Airport Knock came about as a result of research that showed that Ireland West was a more recognisable location to visitors than that of Knock.

“The airport’s historical connections to Knock and its shrine are very important to us, but we now serve the entire west/northwest regions and parts of the midlands. Monsignor Horan envisioned this airport to serve the region first, Ireland second, and the world third, and I’m very proud to be playing a part in helping to realise that vision.”

One of the airport’s more unusual terminal facilities is its little prayer room. Will Grealis be praying for divine intervention to secure the airport’s future?

“For Ireland West Airport Knock to continue to flourish requires the full support of the whole region, but I’m always open to heavenly inspiration,” he smiles.

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