Ireland West Airport is flying. Literally.
When I visited the airport this week to chat with MD Joe Gilmore, things could not be more different than they had been this time last year. Back then, the airport was closed, the Omnicron variant was dominant and hopes that the airport would come anywhere near their record 2019 figures of 800,000 passengers seemed fanciful.
Fast forward, twelve months and the airport is marking an increase in passenger numbers of 314 per cent — and 722,000 passengers went through the facility in 2022.
When you visit the airport, it is never a surprise to see why three quarters of a million people choose it as their airport of choice. Parking is available and convenient; the progress through the airport from arrivals to departure is seamless and there are none of the delays, frustrations and queues that one might associate with flight travel in other airports.
"It has been an amazing period of recovery," said Joe Gilmore."This time last year we were closed. We slowly started back in February, and in March markets started to open. And at that stage, the view was that we'd have a reasonable summer.
"But from literally day one for bookings, it took off. There was a big pent up demand and people just wanted to travel. People wanted to renew acquaintances. Holiday destination bookings and the UK market took off strongly because it was back to a case of people wanting to meet family and friends again.
"It was said that the full recovery would not happen until 2025, but for the smaller airports like ourselves, recovery has been much faster/because we have mainly point to point short haul flights. The surge in demand for us was because our main market was the UK and we have such a large diaspora and inbound /outbound traffic for a variety of tourism, leisure, family reasons. That market was there waiting to be reunited after restriction.
"So you had people trying to catch up on two or three years of family occasions from funerals that they had been unable to attend, to delayed wakes to weddings, all those events, and they all came back very strongly."
He said that when it comes to looking at the remarkable recovery, he has to acknowledge the massive contribution made by not only by great team of loyal staff at the airport, but also by the airlines and the Government support, led by then Minister of State for Transport, Hildegarde Naughton.
"We had fantastic support from our team here and from the airlines and Minister Naughton. It was a great challenge. We were stretched to the limits making sure everyone could have parking. We also benefited, I suppose indirectly, from the challenges other airports had in terms of queues and delays. So people actually took a closer look at regional airports, and at the flights we had, and we saw a good increase in people travelling from the Midlands and the Northwest down to us.
"In 2022 we had a 37% increase in the number of Galway people using the airport compared to 2019 based on data from our online car parking system which tracks car registrations and this was great to see.
"In fact, Galway is now the second biggest market from an outbound and inbound passenger perspective behind Mayo," he added.
"The five-times daily bus service with Bus Eireann on Route 64 between Letterkenny and Galway stopping at the airport has proven to be very popular with Galway people, as Bus Eireann has reported a big uptake on passenger numbers from this region in 2022," he said, adding that people from all over who might not have used the airport before, are now seriously looking at Ireland West as an option that is more convenient.
Mr Gilmore said that Ryanair have been key to the growth of the airport.
"Ryanair restored most of the routes they had before Covid and they also took over the three FlyBe services to the UK that went when FlyBe closed.
"I think the airlines saw a massive spike in bookings and there was a phenomenal pickup in bookings. People just realised and said 'we can travel'. And that gave everybody some confidence.
"Now Ryanair, throughout lockdown, maintained most of their pilots and aircraft. And they were ready to go. They had new aircraft coming on stream from Boeing, so they had additional aircraft. They were primed to go and they have loaded a lot of capacity into the airport," he said.
Mr Glmore said that he is hopeful that Ireland West Airport will at least match, if not exceed the passenger figures of 2019.
"We have a full recovery of all the routes we had in 2019. We have additional frequency on a lot of the UK services. So we have the same route network as then, but we have more capacity.
"The airlines are telling us they're seeing good demand, particularly for summer 2023. People are booking further ahead now than they would have been three or four years. I think people do want something to look forward to after several years of restriction."
Mr Gilmore is also appreciative of the support given by the local authorities in the west of Ireland who have invested in the airport.
'This is more than just ownership. It is a strong message of support saying that Ireland West Airport is the airport for this region and we are very grateful for that. In return, we promote the counties of the west here at the airport and encourage our inward passengers to see the tourism offering which are available right across the region."
He said the airport is also ideally situated to benefit from the newfound interest in inward tourism in places like Achill and the Aran islands, now that they have been given global exposure in the hit film The Banshees of Inisherin.
"There was always great interest from Germans in Achill because of the connection with acclaimed German writer Heinrich Boll who lived there.
"Now that they have seen the beauty of Achill in its new light in the film, we are expecting there to be increased bookings from countries like Germany and the UK. We have been doing a lot of marketing with Failte Ireland in the German market and now it is just a matter of letting people know that the services to the airport are there from Cologne.
"There is a lot of interest too from the Italian and Spanish markets in discovering the west of Ireland," he added.
There is much evidence of Ireland West Airport not resting on its laurels, and they have taken the opportunity of the last few years to enhance facilities at the airport.
The extra carparks have been re-surfaced, work on the runway has been completed; they have taken delivery of a state of the art fire engine; the arrival and departures terminals have been upgraded, and the cafe/restaurant area is currently being enhanced to improve further the experience of being at the airport. There his also an ongoing €8m electrical revamp of the complete matrix of the facility.
Joe Gilmore is also conscious of the traditional role the airport plays in greetings and farewells, so he is keen to ensure that families can go back to seeing their loved ones disembark/board their aircraft from the upstairs viewing galleries, which was restricted during lockdown.
It has been a turbulent few years, considering 12-18 months ago, most airports were closed and people did not know if they would ever be flying again. But they are, in even greater numbers and now it is just a matter of time before the number of passengers using Ireland West Airport annually tops the magic million mark.
Four decades on from its founding and opening, the airport on the hill is a beacon to three quarters of a million passengers, and perhaps equally a beacon to another million people who wave them home and bid them farewell.
In 2026, the airport will celebrate its fortieth birthday, and Mr Gilmore is confident that this will be marked with these exciting and future enhancements of the facility.
It has become part of the psyche of the west of Ireland. Two generations have grown up knowing it as a constant. No longer is the viability of the airport even the slightest consideration. Now it is flying, with routes all over the UK and Europe.
This is Connacht's airport — and it deserves our support whenever we fly.
For a full range of routes to and from Ireland West Airport, see irelandwestairport.com