Since our very first booking in 2015 (there were only 7 in that 1st year). Camino Groups has booked for schools, individuals, work groups, groups, charities and many more – a booking that involved getting them on a plane before that could dream of walking the Camino. That number today is well into 4 figures but whether they flew to Santiago, Vigo, Porto, Biarritz, Bilbao or Madrid, they all had one thing in common.
Every single one of them flew from Dublin Airport.
Shannon is local to me – I even worked there for 4 summers (in my student days when mammoths still roamed the earth) and Shannon has been in the news quite a lot of late. The big news was the announcement that Aer Lingus is to close its base there and, typically enough, this caused a political furore after the horse had bolted. But this had been preceded by a lot of “we need support” messaging throughout Covid times.
There’s a valid argument to be made that Shannon serves Govt. support as part of a balanced regional strategy, but to me, the bottom line is that Shannon has to be aggressive in how it markets and positions itself. Do you let your business model become unsustainable without props or do you go for it? Here are a few thoughts…
The steady decline of Shannon Airport
For decades, Shannon Airport was a pioneering airport in many different ways – from the early days in aviation through the creation of duty-free shopping, the news stories were mostly positive. Since the abolition of the “stopover status”, it seems that Shannon has slowly been losing a battle with Cork for the status of Ireland’s second busiest airport, rather than being seen as a strong counterweight to Dublin Airport.
Shannon has faced many challenges since I spent 4 summers working there in the flight kitchen around 30 years ago, including:
- The drop in transatlantic numbers arising from the abolition of the stopover status.
- The closure of the flight kitchen.
- The loss of Aeroflot routes.
- The improvements made to Ireland’s road network, improving the accessibility of Dublin Airport to most Irish cities and towns.
- Lack of clarity as to who should be coordinating the fight to improve Shannon’s fortunes.
- Being out-marketed by Dublin Airport (remember the Ryder Cup media battle?)
- Indecision as to what is the best solution regarding the airport’s management. To DAA or not to DAA?
Passenger numbers compared to other Irish airports
Dublin – In 2008, Shannon Airport had 12.6% of the level passenger numbers that Dublin had. In 2019, that had fallen to 4.9%.
Cork – In competition with Cork, in 2008 Shannon had 91% of Cork’s level of passenger numbers whereas in 2019, that has fallen to 70%.
Regional airports – In 2008, Shannon had 3.1 times the level of passengers that Ireland West (Knock) had and 6.99 times the level of Kerry Airport (Farranfore). By 2019, these numbers had dropped to 2.24 times and 5.14 times respectively.
So the bottom line is that Shannon’s numbers are falling compared to all other of Ireland’s big airports.
The Camino – getting to Santiago
The Camino involves a network of routes that finish in Santiago de Compostela. As a result, Santiago is very much a touristic city and a lot of its economic life revolves around the Camino.
Santiago is the capital city of the Celtic region of Galicia in Spain. It is its 3rd most populated city in Galicia, behind Vigo and A Coruña.
In 2009 when I first walked the Camino, I flew Aer Lingus from Dublin to Santiago. In 2014 when I started researching the Camino as a business opportunity, Aer Lingus flew from Dublin to Santiago 3 times a week, from April to October.
As numbers have grown on the Camino, so has the number of flights offered by Aer Lingus from Dublin. In the busier summer months, flights have operated up to 6 times a week.
Up to May 2019, Ryanair flew from Dublin to Vigo (but discontinued a popular route for a reason not announced by them). Although not so much a tourist city as one with an industrial and maritime base, Vigo is convenient to the Camino, being on or near the 2nd most popular Camino route (the Camino Portugués).
To give an indication of the increase in the number of Irish people walking on the Camino, the following graph indicates the number of Irish pilgrims receiving their official Camino cert in Santiago. Although only a subset of the total numbers visiting, it still indicates the trend.
Another indication of the amount of traffic from Ireland to Santiago is Santiago Airport’s own traffic stats. In 2019, Santiago’s 5 busiest international routes were as follows:
|% change year on year
|Easyjet / Swissair
Even including domestic flights, those 55,000 passengers make Aer Lingus the 7th largest carrier at Santiago airport. Incidentally, Ryanair is the largest with over 1.2 million.
There are international airports in Vigo and A Coruña also.
So in all of this time, no flight from Shannon has been offered – all of the slack has been taken up at Dublin airport. The question as to how this has been allowed to happen sticks out like a sore thumb.
Ryanair fly to Santiago (just not from Dublin) and surely Spanish carriers like Iberia and Vueling would be interested in a growing route. So why has nothing happened to date?
It’s galling to deal with enquiries from schools in Clare, Limerick and the general West, only to have to tell them that they need to travel to Dublin to fly!
Shannon Airport – Rebrand to “Shannon Wild Atlantic”
While interest in the Camino and flights to Santiago is my primary concern for work reasons, I think that even more can be done in terms of route development. The first step should be to rebrand the airport as “Shannon Wild Atlantic”.
For now, Shannon (and Clare + Limerick) seems to be shoehorned into an uninspiring “mid-west” label. What does that mean – is it in the middle or the west? As a test, imagine where you see the mid-west being in the USA and then Google it to see how right or wrong you are. In short, mid-west is too vague and flimsy to mean anything of value.
Have you ever flown into Nantes in France? Nantes is a city with a strong connection to its location on the Atlantic – it was one of the largest ports in Europe for the slave trade in earlier times. Nantes airport is a good deal smaller than Shannon, but its identity is clear in its name. It is named Nantes Atlantique. If you have never been to Nantes or know little of it, I am sure you can picture its location by its airport’s name.
So why not Shannon Wild Atlantic? Rebrand the airport, draw worldwide attention to it and mark it as the access airport to the entire Wild Atlantic Way. It sounds too obvious not to have been thought of and carried out already. It’s only a name (and it can keep the SNN code) but Wild Atlantic means a lot more than a vague “mid-west”.
If you add the populations of Clare, Limerick and Galway, you get a mini-region of over half a million people, extend that to all the counties on the western seaboard and you get a population of over 1.5 million. This can be a region with some clout!
Shannon Airport – a pioneer once more
Shannon Airport could become the leader in the development of a strategy around a network of tourism in “The Regions of Europe”.
In Ireland, we have an old-fashioned mindset around twinning – towns are twinned with other towns, usually on the initiative of local authorities. A development of this would be where a local government unit is twinned with an equivalent (think Clare CC and Newry and Mourne). Question – how many such twinning arrangements bring local benefits 20 years after their inauguration?
However, what about twinning on a regional scale, where the borders don’t have to be absolute, where the organisers can be cross-jurisdiction and multi-agency if needs be, all under a single umbrella?
I can see potential the development of this in 3 stages of increasing number:
1 – The Wild Atlantic Way twinned with Galicia
Galicia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities with a population of close to 3 million people. It’s a Celtic region with its own language and customs and legend tells us that the Celts invaded Ireland from here.
Santiago de Compostela (population 100,000) is its capital and 3rd largest city after Vigo (300,000) and A Coruña (250,000).
Galicia has so much to offer the tourist – Santiago is the end point of the Camino de Santiago and many other cities are worthwhile visits in their own right. A Coruña is home to the UNESCO Heritage Site the “Tower of Hercules” as well as the famous Riazor beach.
The climate in Galicia is milder than much of the rest of Spain and many of its beach towns and resorts are popular destinations for Spaniards. It is famous for its gastronomy – Albariño and Ribeira wines are Galician while the entire region is famous for its seafood offerings.
Galicia also borders Northern Portugal – Porto is easily accessed by road or train. In short – loads to see and do!
2 – Expanding the twinning to include other Celtic regions
The same template used for Galicia can be used to twin with other Celtic regions.
With a population of over 5 million, many people have visited Scotland but never made it beyond its 2 main cities. Edinburgh is worth visiting any time of year, while Glasgow has many connections to Ireland.
But think of heading further North into the Highlands or west to the rich heritage of the islands of Skye, Mull or the Hebrides. Or go north-east to the Cairngorms and explore the Granite city of Aberdeen.
Population 3 million, Wales is accessible by boat as well as plane – might not be a great match for Shannon! But Liverpool could be marketed as an access airport to North Wales (plenty of other passenger traffic heading to Liverpool for other reasons, including soccer).
Population 3.5 million, Brittany is French but it’s not. It has a distinct cultural identity with a Celtic Language. There are many places that haven’t been explored by Irish people – coastal towns and beaches, Mont St. Michel and much more.
Rennes is an airport that gives you access to the entire Brittany peninsula while also allowing for short trips to Paris.
Another of the unexplored regions by Irish people, Cornwall is awash with pretty seaside locations – placenames like Land’s End and Penzance are familiar to all of us.
Cornwall forms part of the same peninsula as Devon – Exeter is probably the only viable airport option for exploring the region. Combined, Devon and Cornwall have a population of around 1.3 million.
3 – Expanding to include other regions across Europe
Imagination and creativity are the only restrictions here. There are countless regions of Europe that could be marketed in their own right and could be twinned with Shannon / Wild Atlantic Way.
How invigorating would it be to see a network of European regions joining forces to market each other, with Shannon as the main driver? Here are just a few possible examples of regions that would have a distinct identity separate to the country of which they are a part:
Catalunya – Shannon already connects with Reus (south of Barcelona) – mostly for the sun vacation market. But there is so much more to see and do in Catalunya, including skiing in neighbouring Andorra. Catalunya is proud of its identity and one imagines would be very open to promoting the region rather than just being part of Spain.
Andalucía – Again in Spain, Andalucía offers both sun resorts and a wide range of other less-visited tourist attractions for Irish visitors (Think Seville, Córdoba, Granada, Malaga, Ronda). Find me an Irishman who has gone skiing in the Sierra Nevada? It has skiing at a higher altitude than the Pyrenees.
Sicily – Already accessed from Dublin, Sicily has a population of around 5 million people. A rich history of invasions and their varying influences, it also offers all the sun, sea and sand that you could ask for! Sicily is Italian but it’s different!
Transylvania. Not served by Shannon, flights to Bucharest would open up both the city itself and the region of Transylvania (Bucharest is south of Transylvania). It would also offer extra connectivity to the Romanian population in Ireland.
Malopolskie. Krakow is a beautiful city to visit in its own right, either in winter or summer. It has some wonderful day trips nearby (think Auschwitz and Wieliczka) while winter connectivity opens up Zakopane as a skiing option in the Tatra mountains. The large Polish population in Ireland increases the attraction of this route.
Estonia. Ok, not a region but a small country. Tallinn is a beautiful city and a great gateway to the country at large. You can also easily access Helsinki (a couple of hours by boat across the Gulf of Finland). For the more adventurous, add in a visit to stunning St. Petersburg in Russia!
Vienna. Not a region but a city, Vienna is included because you can visit so many countries from here! An hour from Bratislava on the Danube in Slovakia, 2:30 to Budapest in Hungary, 4-5 hours by road will get you to Munich in Germany, Zagreb in Croatia, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Prague in Czechia – it’s the ultimate heart of Europe!