Flights from Knock Airport to Dublin are to cease in July following the Government decision revealed this week to withdraw public service obligation funding for the route.
Ireland West Airport Knock has a throughput of between 600,000 and 800,000 passengers per year and the Knock-Dublin route is frequented by two per cent of passengers, accounting for between 6,000 and 8,000 people.
The loss of the early morning Dublin flights will particularly affect the business world and those in the west flying to the capital for commercial reasons as well as international travel between the west of Ireland through Dublin and on to the UK and mainland Europe.
At one point flight tickets on the route were so keenly priced that passengers could make savings by flying from Knock to Dublin instead of taking the train and relying on public transport to get around. However, recent falling passenger numbers has led to increasing subvention costs per passenger on PSO services working out at €111 euro per passenger at Knock.
The news of the PSO funding withdrawal came following the publishing on Wednesday of the Government’s Value for Money Review of Exchequer Expenditure report by the Department of Transport on the Regional Airports Programme, which contains a number of recommendations about the future funding of regional airports.
“It must also be borne in mind that there are many demands on the Department of Transport’s vote and trying to maintain a level of expenditure on the Regional Airports Programme which is no longer sustainable would impact negatively on other areas such as public transport provision and road maintenance,” said Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey this week.
While describing the loss as a devastating blow, Ireland West Airport Knock managing director Joe Gilmore said it will not scupper the plans to turn the airport into a thriving, self-sufficient, international airport.
“The loss of the PSO route provided by the Aer Arann carrier is bad news in the immediate term and will have a negative impact in terms of the loss of the route and traffic to the airport and will no doubt indirectly affect the area in other ways, but the Government’s report on the matter this week also endorsed the future of the airport with its categoric recommendation that Exchequer support continue and be focused on the development of the regional airport for Knock,” Mr Gilmore told the Mayo Advertiser.
“So we’re taking solace that the report identifies Knock as a critical asset for the region now and going forward. Our current contract runs to July but after that the Dublin route will cease as air services on Dublin regional routes have to be subsidised.
“However, we have lobbied for international PSOs for other early morning flights,” he added.
“For example Government support for the creation of an international hub connection to destinations such as Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle would also greatly enhance the airport’s contribution to regional economic growth and would suit leisure and business travellers which would be very justifed in the region. We are additionally looking at the commercial viability of getting another carrier in to do the routes.”
Mr Gilmore added that the Government is arguing it does not owe a public service for people traveling from Knock to Dublin by air because road and rail connections between the two have improved so much in recent years.
“We could dispute this of course but there is no point in getting into an argument,” he said. “What this really means is that the Government has decided to take away choice and for national and international connectivity for business people wanting to leave on early morning flights. We are disappointed there have been no firm steps taken to help us with route development.”
It is not all bad news for the airport however, which just one month ago was awarded funding of €404,242 is under the Core Airport Management Operational Expenditue Subvention Scheme, on top of grants of €356,706 already provided in 2010. More recently it announced the good news of three new flight services starting in February and the introduction in April of a new carrier, Fly Be, which will operate between Knock and Edinburgh.
“So we are actively working with other airlines to expand and counter the loss of the PSO and this is where we see our future,” he added. “This airport would not survive on subventions for the Dublin route, which accounts for just two per cent of our traffic. We want Ireland West Knock expanded fully as an international airport to the potential it can achieve.”
In a futher statement from Ireland West Airport Knock, management reported that in the past seven years €26m has been invested to provide a new terminal, improved passenger infrastructure, runway end safety area upgrades, security enhancements, and a new upgraded instrument landing system, befitting an international airport for the region.
“Of this €26m the airport self-funded €14m. The airport has invested heavily in attracting new international services from the UK, Scotland, and mainland Europe which means the airport is now served by major international airline brands such as bmibaby, Flybe, Ryanair, and Aer Lingus and major tour operator brands such as Panorama, Sunworld, Sunway, and Topflight which has helped build passenger numbers to over 600,000 annually serving over 25 international destinations. The airport continues to work hard to build sustainable air services to international destinations from both an outward and inbound tourism and business perspective.
“However, far more remains to be done. Tourism bodies in particular need to put far more resources into promoting tourism from abroad through the many access points we now serve from the UK and Europe and supporting the introduction of new destinations from Europe and the US.”