Shannon Group: Chairperson Designate

Apologies have been received from Senator Craughwell and Deputies Matthews and O'Rourke. Deputy Violent-Anne Wynne will substitute for Deputy O'Rourke.

The purpose of this meeting is to engage with the chairperson designate of the Shannon Group to discuss his strategic priorities in the role and his views on the challenges currently facing the Shannon Group. On behalf of the committee, I heartily welcome Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh.

Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if a statement is potentially inflammatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, the witness will be directed to discontinue his or her remarks. It is imperative that witnesses comply with any such direction. There are some limitations to parliamentary privilege for witnesses attending remotely from outside the Leinster House campus. They may not benefit from the same level of immunity to legal proceedings that a witness physically present does. Witnesses participating in this session from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should also be mindful of domestic law and how it may apply to the evidence that they give.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

For anyone watching this meeting, Oireachtas members and witnesses now have the option of being physically present in the committee or to join the meeting remotely via Microsoft Teams. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit members to participate where they are not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will, reluctantly, be asked to leave the meeting. In this regard, I would ask any member partaking via Microsoft Teams, prior to making his or her contribution to the meeting, to confirm that he or she is on the grounds of the Leinster House campus. If attending in the committee room, you are asked to exercise personal responsibility to protect yourself and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. I strongly advise the practice of good hand hygiene and to leave at least one vacant seat between you and others attending. One should also always maintain an appropriate level of social distancing during and after the meeting. Masks should be worn at all times during the meeting except when speaking.

It is with pleasure that I now call on Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh to make his opening statement.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus le baill an choiste. Is mór an onóir dom a bheith roghnaithe ag an Aire Iompair agus Comhshaoil, Aeráide agus Cumarsáide, an Teachta Eamon Ryan, mar chathaoirleach ainmnithe de chuid Ghrúpa na Sionainne. Is mór an phribhléid a bheith i láthair inniu mar chuid den phróiseas ainmniúcháin seo mar gheall ar an ról fíorthábhachtach atá i gceist.

Let me assure the committee that working with the CEO, Ms Mary Considine, and board on the recovery of Shannon Airport after the devastation caused by the pandemic will be my primary and main focus. It is a huge but exciting challenge at what is probably the most difficult period the global aviation industry has ever faced.

I would like to start by outlining my professional qualifications and setting out my reasons for applying for the role of chair of the Shannon Group. I am a seasoned entrepreneur and hold a strong track record at senior level in the private and public sectors. Perhaps, and possible the most valuable asset that I can bring to the role, is my extensive first-hand experience in aviation and a deep insight into all aspects of the sector.

Following an early career in Galway that involved accountancy, teaching and law, I remortgaged my house and, with a partner, bought Aer Arann in 1994. Over the following 26 years I held the roles of chief executive, chairman and accountable manager, which was probably the most important, of the airline. The role of accountable manager is particularly important in the aviation industry because one is personally responsible and accountable for all of the safety and operation of that airline from the perspectives of staff and passengers. There are two parts to the industry. One is the commercial side and the other is the regulatory side. It is fundamentally important to have a good knowledge of both sides because they interact and overlap.

I am a former winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and I represented Ireland in the world final of the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year programme. I have also been a judge for the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year programme and have chaired the EY entrepreneur of the year programme for a number of years.

I am an alumnus of Harvard University and of National University Ireland Galway, NUIG, where I was awarded business alumnus of the year. I am currently adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and business in NUIG. I also hold professional qualifications from the Law Society of Ireland. One of my proudest and most privileged times was when I worked with many members and other colleagues as a Senator in Seanad Éireann from 2016 to 2020. My previous board experience has included directorships with Fáilte Ireland, RTÉ and Bord Iascaigh Mhara.

I would now like to share some Shannon Group details and observations with the committee. Shannon Group’s mandate from the Government on its establishment in 2014 is "to promote and facilitate air transport and aviation services in and around Shannon Airport and to optimise the return on its land and property”. At the core of the group is Shannon Airport, which provides essential air connectivity that supports businesses and the livelihoods of thousands of people in the west of Ireland. Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, 1.7 million passengers passed through Shannon Airport. It is important to remember that in early 2020, Shannon Airport was set for a year of growth, with new routes and having secured locally-based aircraft. The revitalisation of Shannon Airport is important not only for the staff who work there and who are very committed to the airport but also for the people of the region who rely on Shannon’s air connectivity. It is a vital economic engine for the Shannon region and the wider west of Ireland economy. I believe that the Shannon Group is well positioned to play a key role in the region’s recovery. I am committed to working with the CEO and the board to ensure that happens. I will bring drive, passion and energy to the role.

Over the years the Shannon Group has contributed significantly to economic activity and growth in the mid-west region. Prior to the pandemic, the overall economic impact of these activities was estimated at €3.6 billion gross value added, supporting over 46,500 jobs across the region it serves and contributing €1.15 billion in tax revenue.

The group’s property activity comprises a portfolio of 3.1 million sq. ft of property, in addition to significant land banks. With over 300 companies and growing, the Shannon campus that incorporates the airport and the Shannon free zone is one of Ireland’s most prominent multi-sectoral business parks. Since establishment, the group has invested over €135 million across its campus, successfully delivering innovative and competitive property solutions to indigenous and foreign clients of all sizes in the mid-west. The campus hosts the largest cluster of aviation companies in Ireland. Supported by the Shannon Group, it has grown to over 80 companies today. Shannon is also home to Ireland’s first test bed for future mobility, with a focus on innovation and development in driverless and autonomous transport technology.

Moving to heritage activities, I endorse the discussions taking place regarding the transfer of Shannon heritage sites to local authorities. These arrangements will facilitate the Shannon Group to focus on the recovery of its airport business, building back international passengers as soon as possible, while continuing to develop its associated property activities and the aviation cluster as the country emerges from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The recovery of the aviation sector to pre-pandemic levels is likely to take many years. It is certain that airports such as Shannon will face much increased competition for new routes during this time. Some European aviation committees and structures believe it will between 2026 and 2027 before we get back to pre-pandemic levels. However, I have set an ambitious target to recover Shannon's air traffic to 2019 levels by 2024 or in other words, within three years. As the European aviation committees and structures believe it will take until 2026 or 2027 before we get back to pre-pandemic levels, it is a pretty ambitious target but we will give it our best shot. In meetings that I have with the CEO, Ms Mary Considine, we are 100% committed to aiming for this objective.

I am confident that this focus on recovery and growth, accompanied by the provision of appropriate supports for the Irish aviation, business and tourism sectors, will help ensure the organisation’s emergence, and that of the mid-west region, from the effects of Covid-19. The certainty of such an intervention, for example through the permanent inclusion of Shannon in the State's regional airports programme, will help drive future development and growth thus bringing certainty and predictability in uncertain times.

To conclude, I am confident that the actions now being taken by management will further enhance Shannon Group's performance and its contribution to all key stakeholders in the mid-west region and beyond. As chairperson, it will be my privilege, and that of the board, to support the Shannon Group's management in delivering future growth and development for the group, and the mid-west region, during the coming years. I am confident that with the right supports and hard work Shannon will recover and build back stronger.

Gabhaim buíochas le baill an choiste as an deis a bheith os a gcomhair inniu. Tá mé buíoch as an deis agus an dúshlán atá agam ceantar na Sionainne a chur ar ais ar an mapa san áit ba chóir dó a bheith agus san áit a raibh sé ag dul siar go dtí na 1940idí.

The first slot is Fine Gael's. I call Deputy Joe Carey, all the way from Clarecastle.

I welcome Mr. Ó Céidigh back to the Oireachtas. He is very familiar with these surroundings. Indeed, he would have chaired many meetings in this room. I view his appointment as a very positive move for County Clare, the mid-west and the western seaboard. As he said, Shannon Airport is an economic driver. It is an engine for growth and 46,500 jobs hang on the back of Shannon and its well-being. I have met with a huge number of people from the business community and the tourism industry over the past week and they have responded positively to Mr. Ó Céidigh's appointment. He is a shot in the arm for both the mid-west and the western seaboard. I look forward to working with him and rebuilding the potential that is in Shannon.

Even prior to Covid-19, Shannon Airport was struggling to gain market share. The key issue is addressing the imbalance between Dublin Airport and the rest. One of Mr. Ó Céidigh's targets should be to amend national aviation policy and have positive discrimination towards Shannon Airport because it is much more than an airport. It is an economic driver and businesses that are in Shannon or the mid-west region are there principally because of the presence of Shannon and the connectivity it provides. Coupled with that, Shannon is the lifeblood of tourism along the west coast. We have many top-class hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast establishments along the west coast, and they really rely on Shannon. This week I met with the Irish Hotels Federation at the Inn At Dromoland about their asks for the coming budget. I asked one particular individual, Michael Vaughan, if he had many tourists at the moment. He said they had 30 Americans that night and that every one of those had entered the country through Dublin. They had to sit on a bus or in a car and come down to Lahinch to overnight, play golf and so on. Why are these people not coming through Shannon Airport? Part of Mr. Ó Céidigh's objective should also be to restore transatlantic routes, build on that traffic, re-establish the three daily direct return routes to Heathrow and get a bigger slice of the aviation cake nationally for Shannon.

I also see Mr. Ó Céidigh's role as something more than just a person who comes in every month and chairs a board meeting. I know him and I know that is not his way. He is going to roll up his sleeves and give this his best shot. This committee should support him and make representations to the Government, to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, to establish his position as an executive chairperson in order that he is remunerated and recognised for the vital position he now holds.

I am also, for my sins, chairperson of the Shannon Airport Oireachtas group and I have had a lot of contact from committee members who are very anxious to meet with Mr. Ó Céidigh. That is another pivotal role he will play because over the last number of years a gulf has arisen between the airport and the region. I think Mr. Ó Céidigh will be able to provide that bridge between all the stakeholders, whether they are political stakeholders, businesses or the ordinary person who has a deep interest in the airport. I ask that Mr. Ó Céidigh play that role as well and I ask that he meet with the Oireachtas members from the region at the earliest opportunity. I wish him all the best in his new role and I look forward to working with him.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Go raibh míle maith agat. I very much appreciate Deputy Carey's support. His and his colleagues' commitment to Shannon Airport is one of the biggest reasons I went for this role. It runs pretty deep with a lot of people, including those up here in Leinster House. One of the Deputy's colleagues told me that as a child of five, six, seven or eight years of age, they used to go to Shannon Airport on Sundays to see the planes land and have a bit of lunch there. It is deep-rooted in the community and in the area. It is a huge privilege for me to be offered this opportunity and the Deputy is right that I am going to give it my best shot.

I refer to two matters. The first is stakeholders. The point the Deputy raised is critically important because no one person can bring Shannon Airport back to where it deserves to be, needs to be and should be. We are all in this together and I am 100% committed to having open, frequent and honest engagement with all the stakeholders. The committee members, as public representatives, have a hugely important role to play as stakeholders in relation to the future of Shannon Airport and if they are not actively involved in working with, supporting and challenging me, the board and the management team, the progress we make will be very small and slow. For the next three years during which I will be chairman, it is going to be an active engagement scenario with all the stakeholders, the management team, the staff and the business communities. As the Deputy said, those business communities are very supportive of me and I am privileged and humbled by that. I am keen to engage with them and get their input and views because I am not able to do this on my own. However, together we can put Shannon Airport on the map and I am confident of that.

From a board perspective and as already indicated, the big objective is to get us back to 2019 levels. That includes three Heathrow flights a day and transatlantic routes. We are going to do everything in our power to achieve that but the support of the committee and of key stakeholders is important.

The Deputy made a point about Dublin Airport that is very important. I am delighted that Dublin Airport has done as well as it has and I wish it every success in the future. I received a message from the CEO of the Dublin Airport Authority, Dalton Philips, offering his congratulations and support, and offering to co-operate and work with me and with us in any way he possibly can, which I welcome. This is not an either-or situation. This is about working together for Ireland Inc. We have a slightly different roles and objectives. Shannon Airport has an objective for that region and Dublin Airport has a slightly different objective in the same industry. There is no reason, in the context of a small island with a population of approximately 5 million. for us not to work together and create a win-win situation. One of the first things I will be looking at is how we can work with Dublin Airport to create a win-win situation.

If we conclude the first round and have time members can come back in again. Does Deputy Carey have any concluding comments?

I thank Mr. Ó Céidigh. Will he be available to meet with the Shannon Airport Oireachtas group in the coming weeks?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes. I would be keen to meet sooner rather than later, in the coming two weeks or so if at all possible, because I would like to get that feedback early on.

Excellent. I will reach out to Mr. Ó Céidigh and we can organise that.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Please do.

The board meeting is taking place some early in November.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes.

It would be instructive to have our meeting with Mr. Ó Céidigh prior to that meeting.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That would be great.

It could feed into the board's deliberations.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It would be helpful to me.

Seafdafdfd

As with previous speakers, I offer a warm welcome to Pádraig Ó Céidigh as the incoming chairperson of Shannon Airport. We should be particularly thankful that Mr. Ó Céidigh has chosen to put himself forward for this role. With his immense experience, undoubted ability and clear understanding of the needs of the region, he is the ideal candidate for the very difficult task ahead.

We owe Mr. Ó Céidigh a debt of gratitude. He is an exceptionally busy businessman with many other interests. That he will give time to a role like this for the region and the State should not go unnoticed and unrecognised. I thank him for that.

I will raise a couple of issues relating to Shannon. My colleague has already outlined many of the challenges and Mr. Ó Céidigh will be well aware of them. The focus is on driving traffic through the airport and I note Mr. Ó Céidigh's stated objective is to get back to 2019 levels. That will be challenging but I hope that in rebuilding to achieve 2019 levels of traffic at Shannon Airport, Mr. Ó Céidigh makes some fundamental changes to the foundations that are in place. In 2019, Shannon was losing competitive advantage to Dublin and Cork airports. To get back to the 2019 numbers would be good from this vantage point but Mr. Ó Céidigh will face a challenge creating different streams to ensure the airport can grow and rebuild from those levels. Mr. Ó Céidigh has the capacity to do that.

Mr. Ó Céidigh spoke about the property portfolio, which is an important feature of the airport. I would like to hear any thoughts or ideas he may have on that at this stage.

Mr. Ó Céidigh referred to the heritage tourism part of the business that is transferring to Clare County Council. It might be useful, notwithstanding that transfer of business, for Mr. Ó Céidigh to engage with some of the representatives of the heritage part of the business as part of his consultation process.

It is vital that Mr. Ó Céidigh engage at the earliest opportunity with the chambers of commerce and all the various stakeholders in the region, including the workers. I recommend that he consider holding a town-hall style meeting when conditions permit. From my experience, the airport workers are the most hardworking, decent and honourable people who have some fantastic ideas based on their lifetime experience working in the airport. That would be useful.

Mr. Ó Céidigh has a very committed CEO and management team, with whom he has engaged. That is to be welcomed.

The big short-term challenges will be to get Aer Lingus back on the Heathrow route with frequency and timings that meet the needs of the region. We want to see the single flight each day continue when Cork Airport reopens. My discussions with Aer Lingus suggest that is possible. However, while the flight to Heathrow is a welcome development, it is not adequate and does not meet the needs of the region. We need an early morning flight out of Shannon, as Mr. Ó Céidigh well knows, and a late evening return flight. Mr. Ó Céidigh indicated the airport will try to get back to three flights a day and use those slots, which will be a further challenge. As Mr. Ó Céidigh will be aware, Aer Lingus's commitment to the slot access to Heathrow has a life span and is up for review. It will be important to challenge to retain that slot access to Heathrow.

Transatlantic flights out of the United States are expected to restart in March 2022. While I welcome that, it would be helpful if Mr. Ó Céidigh could use his contacts and skills to broaden the reach in the United States from the east coast, as we have been used to.

The big challenge Mr. Ó Céidigh will find is that Shannon Airport does not have access to another European hub other than Heathrow. There are big efforts by the chambers of commerce and business interests in the region to try to get access to Frankfurt Airport or Schiphol Airport. Any assistance or guidance Mr. Ó Céidigh can give in relation to that would be helpful.

Mr. Ó Céidigh will note from his discussions with people in Galway, Clare, Limerick and throughout the west and mid-west, there is a desire to see a greater level of flight activity. In my view, the focus of Shannon Airport for the past seven or eight years has been on developing the Shannon Group's property assets. When the group reports its success at the end of the year, it is reported in terms of profit and loss, and it has been significantly profitable. Much of that profit is based on the success of the property assets in the Shannon Group's property portfolio. That often masks the failure to reach the kind of growth in passenger numbers that Dublin and Cork airports have recorded. Knowing Mr. Ó Céidigh as long as I do, he is a straight talker and straight shooter. I do not expect his board, when it announces results in the future, will talk only about pounds, shillings and pence. It will talk about passenger numbers through the airport and how its targets will be achieved. No one will give out if the board does not meet its targets. It is about the strategy for achieving them and I implore Mr. Ó Céidigh to work on the passenger numbers side of the business because that is what drives the region. Having property assets generating profits is lovely around the airport but the real win is when passengers come through, stay in hotels and guesthouses and eat in restaurants. I do not mind if they travel to counties other than County Clare but they will spend money along the western seaboard. They will visit the Cliffs of Moher. They only way that can happen is if we increase flight activity.

The way in which Shannon Airport developed was that it was expected to be sustained and to grow. When there was not enough capacity for business, the State intervened through Shannon Development and built factories. Is it now time for Shannon Airport to look at owning its own airline - setting up an airline to serve routes that are not already served? That is not to suggest that every route can be served. Is there an opportunity for Shannon Airport to set up an airline, a small one initially, with some State capital? Mr. Ó Céidigh will know better than I that the big leasing companies have a lot of aeroplanes on their balance sheet, many of which are not being leased. This could be a good time to try something like this. It certainly could be done in conjunction with the leasing companies. They would give favourable rates in the short term. With Mr. Ó Céidigh's experience with running an airline, I would like to hear his views on that. We would then be fully in control of operations rather than being at the whim of the airlines, all of which, with the exception of Ryanair, are international and are significantly stretched because of recent losses. It might be time for a small, new, fit-for-purpose airline getting access to relatively cheap aircraft on the international leasing markets.

We might start with Senator Dooley's inventive proposal. He is marrying Mr. Ó Céidigh's former ownership of an airline with his appointment as chair of our precious Shannon international airport.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It is a very interesting and entrepreneurial idea. It is thinking outside the box. It also sets a challenge that is outside the box and is well worth investigating. I know all about setting up and building an airline. It is a huge challenge. It is a different business model from an airport model. Having said that, we would not be the first airport to consider doing something like that. It is worth looking at and doing a feasibility study into the proposal. Perhaps we might take it away and get back to the committee on it at some stage. Establishing an airline is a huge task and I am certainly open to looking at the opportunity. I thank Senator Dooley for raising it because it is the kind of thinking we need. It is outside-the-box stuff we need for Shannon. Sin é, a Chathaoirligh.

I ask Mr. Ó Céidigh to respond to the question on flights to Heathrow and, in particular, Aer Lingus. What are his plans to get early morning and late morning flights to Heathrow? That would mean three daily Heathrow flights. When should they be?

Has Mr. Ó Céidigh engaged with Aer Lingus on the return of transatlantic flights, particularly on the Boston and New York routes?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

No, I have not. I am still not chairman of the board and I do not have any authority or footing to formally or properly approach Aer Lingus on the routes the Chairman mentioned. Having said that, when I am officially chairman, one of the first strategies I will have is to see exactly where we are at with Aer Lingus and work out with it what the company requires to get the three Heathrow slots the Chairman and Senator Dooley mentioned. It is not just three Heathrow slots but also their timing that is fundamentally important. There is no point in having a slot that is just a filler for an airline that might decide, for example, to put a spare aeroplane on the Shannon-Heathrow route. They have to be slots that suit members of the business community who are travelling to and from Shannon. There are four waves of aircraft into and out of airports, four particular slots. We must ensure the slot we have coming into and going out of Heathrow from Shannon hits one of those waves of international traffic coming in. That is fundamental and very much at the top of the agenda.

The potential of setting up an airline is longer term. It is important to look at it but it is not absolutely urgent here and now. The urgent issue is the Heathrow route and, as members said, getting at least the fundamentals of the transatlantic routes - Boston and New York - on flow. If we can nail that down, we can look at stage two of a strategy and a longer term strategy.

To respond to Senator Dooley, the total number of passengers who travelled from Shannon Airport to London Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick in 2019 was around 600,000. That is a serious number and I cannot see why any airline would not have an interest in working with us in Shannon on getting back to those passenger numbers again. We have the trend there. Also in 2019, 134,000 passengers were carried on the JFK to Shannon route and back again. That is a sizeable number of transatlantic passengers. I sometimes speak in English and think in Irish but tá an stair againn. We have the history of doing that. It is just a matter of convincing the airlines that we can go there again and also to work hand in hand with us on that.

What are the numbers for the Boston route?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I do not have the Boston numbers; I am sorry. They would be lower but my guess is that the figure is probably in the region of 80,000, although it may be more. I give that figure subject to checking but it gives a sense of where Shannon was at and where it can get to. That is low-hanging fruit.

I thank Senator Dooley for his support. It is very much appreciated. He also mentioned heritage. I understand that the process is very much in progress. It is a long way down the road. Clare County Council and possibly others-----

Limerick City and County Council will manage King John's Castle.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes, it is getting involved. I do not know much about it but I know the process is very much in train and has been discussed and passed at Government level. That has taken its own direction.

There is a period of transition which needs to be handled in a very sensitive way. A large number of employees are involved. Shannon Group still has a role to play and Mr. Ó Céidigh, when he is formally made chair, might continue to be involved in it. The transfer is supposed to take place on 1 January. We are entering a period in which there is major concern among employees of the Shannon Heritage sites. I ask Mr. Ó Céidigh, as chair of the group, to take that on board.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I will note that. Go raibh maith agat.

Would Mr. Ó Céidigh consider arranging a town-hall meeting with the workers when time permits. Obviously he has to get a feel for the new position first but it would be good to have a listening exercise with workers. There has been a gap over the years between workers and the board. I know Mr. Ó Céidigh is not directly responsible for staff but there would be no harm in addressing them and setting out his vision, as he has with us today. That would be welcome and get him off to a good start.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I cannot commit or give a "Yes" or "No" answer to something like that at this stage. I will give a couple of reasons. As Deputy Carey mentioned, this is a non-executive role. In my view, for two years, maybe three, it will be more than a full-time job if we are to get the airport back to where it was. I will give it my best shot. It is a non-executive role. Much of what the Senator is talking about is a management function. I need to make sure I do not cross over and start managing the airport because we have a very good CEO and management team at the airport.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I have to be respectful of that particular space. Having said that, staff are a key stakeholder in all of this. It is much more than a job for them. I was in Shannon last Friday to have a brief meeting with the CEO. When I walked in the door with my mask on a gentleman in a high-visibility vest came up to me and said, "You're your man, aren't you? You're what's his name, Pádraig." When I said I was, he said, "You're very welcome; we are delighted to have you." He is just one of the staff. It meant so much to me.

That is what we want to harness. There is collective collaboration, cross-party support and business people and community workers are very positively disposed to Mr. Ó Céidigh's appointment to this role. We want to harness that. Shannon as a region is much stronger collectively, with all its components. Senator Dooley suggestion is one that, as chairman of the board, Mr. Ó Céidigh would very much take on board in the overall context of the Shannon Group in terms of the huge role the employees play and the benefit that would come from there engagement and interaction with the company.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I respect that and have taken note of what the Senator and the Chairman have raised. I just need to be

cognisant of my overall role and respectful of it.

It is good to see Mr. Ó Céidigh at this meeting. I met him earlier in Buswells Hotel. It is great to see him in Dublin and the Houses of the Oireachtas, a place where he is very much at home. It is great to welcome him to his role as chairperson of the Shannon Group. He told the story of being approached by a worker who did not know his surname but knew Mr. Ó Céidigh was the new guy on the scene. The feeling of relief and hope he described permeates the mid-west. It is felt politically and among those who work in the airport and beyond. The airport is a catalyst for so much economic activity in the region. Our heart and soul is invested in Shannon. We support our local hurling and football clubs and the province in rugby. There is real support for the airport. My wife is from Cork and like many families, we browse the air fares that are available. I am always loyal to Shannon and would rather pay the extra buck to fly out of the airport. That is not felt everywhere in the country but it is certainly felt in the mid-west. We need to tap into that and Mr. Ó Céidigh is the man to lead from the helm.

A week ago, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was before the committee and we discussed what Mr. Ó Céidigh's imminent appointment to this position would entail. I made the point that he will work with a very good chief executive, Mary Considine, and I believed they would work well together. I asked the Minister about the rest of the board and when their terms expire. He envisaged it would be a rotation, where some members would leave the board and new members would be appointed. I know Mr. Ó Céidigh does not have a say but I hope that, as the board is changed up a little, those who come to surround him on the board come from an aviation background. Business and economics are important but running agribusinesses or businesses in other important sectors of the economy are different from running and airport, seeing aeroplanes in our sky and stimulating a region. I hope Mr. Ó Céidigh and Ms Considine will be surrounded by the right people and they get us back on an upward trajectory.

About three weeks ago I had a meeting here in Dublin with the Saudi Arabian ambassador. The Saudis are very keen to establish direct air connectivity between Riyadh Airport and Ireland. I have set up a meeting for Ms Considine and the ambassador, in the hope of deepening links there. There are many aviation hubs in the Middle East but Riyadh airport offers excellent connectivity options for us eastwards into Asia and Australia. We offer westward connectivity options to them as a stepping stone to the US. That is an open door we are pushing. Of course, there is a huge amount of work to be done but there is an appetite on both sides here to do something and I hope Mr. Ó Céidigh will champion that in his tenure.

Moving to the matter of Shannon Heritage, it has felt quite rudderless at times. For many years it has been managed by the mothership Shannon Group. Shannon Heritage has good localised management but some of the big decisions that impacted on it have been taken outside that in the airport. Some of them have been communicated well, others not so well. Given that deficiency in the communications, many of the workers have come to us politicians and we go seeking answers for them. I made the point that while I will gladly do that time and time again it is not really the correct chain of command. I hope that communications line is something Mr. Ó Céidigh will try to rectify as helmsman of the Shannon Group. The transfer of responsibilities is legally intended to conclude on 31 December but now the belief is that could run out to March, for unavoidable reasons like due diligence and all the rigmarole involved there. This is one of the first things I hope Mr. Ó Céidigh can sit down with Ms Considine and have a proper look at. It has been said to Shannon Heritage workers at both the County Claire and County Limerick sites that for the interim period from 1 January until the middle of March, the sites will again close. That is utterly unthinkable. It is unstrategic. It is a head in the sand approach really at a time when all places are reopening. We are just days away from 22 October when society overall opens up. We must back those heritage sites, see them as being strategic tourism sites in the region and say that though this may have been a bumpy road, we are going to keep all the sites open. There is a photo doing the rounds on social media of a tour bus pulling into Bunratty Folk Park the other day and the park was not able to take them. Commercial bookings have been turned away. We are going to lose a lot of space here unless we do something right. Even though Mr. Ó Céidigh is going to be relinquishing responsibility for the Shannon Heritage portfolio he has a role for the next few months, probably up to March, and I ask that he take it on and pass the baton on to the local authorities with the heritage side in a very healthy state. I ask also that he would please engage with the workers.

A dialogue has come out in the last few weeks which has been very helpful to Shannon. It is being called "Shannon-shaming". It is very important that is knocked on the head by everyone who cares about Shannon Airport and the region. The genesis for US military flights landing in Shannon is UN Security Council Resolution 1441 which was passed unanimously. Just yesterday evening, a local Afghan family from County Clare arrived home, having been stuck in Kabul and facing all that they faced at the hands of the Taliban for the last number of weeks. At times, we must look at what is really happening with some of the people who are going out from Shannon on those military flights. It is not all waging war. Sometimes people are being brought back to safety and there are positives. We need to stop and knock on the head the Shannon-shaming. We have enough problems without adding to them.

Shannon is categorised as a category 9 airport. That has implications for which large-body aircraft, with respect to both width and length, can land on the runway. At times over the past year, Shannon has fallen below category 9 status and that has been down to reductions in those working in the fire service. It is important from here on, as we are getting beyond Covid, that Mr. Ó Céidigh, Ms Considine and all on the management side of the airport ensure it is always category 9 and can always receive aircraft coming in over the Atlantic.

I will conclude with a few other small points. The national development plan launched on Monday had some really good positives for Shannon. The suggestion there will be a rail spur out to the airport at long last and that it is being strategically advanced in a national plan is very important, with rail stops at the airport and out along the line through County Clare and into County Limerick. I would like Mr. Ó Céidigh's opinion on that. Is it an enabler for getting things back?

We want to see restoration of full connectivity to hubs, existing ones and beyond, and also to the US. I have described the relationship between Shannon and the Dublin Airport Authority since separation as a predatorial one. It certainly felt like that in the time before Covid. I think it is largely accepted now in the region, and indeed nationally, that it is impossible for the two to fully compete. There is a bit of the David and Goliath about it. That is just owning up to the realities of this. When Mr. Ó Céidigh stewarded Aer Arann he was leading a David versus Goliath operation as well, and very successfully. Shannon and Dublin must work off each other and play off each other and look at how, in other countries like Finland and the Netherlands, the capital airport of the country was able to benefit and strengthen them and we must look at that.

I have a very short question on the duration of Mr. Ó Céidigh's tenure. Last week the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, told us there is no length to tenures and he is going to switch the board in and out but we certainly want some continuity as we try to make a recovery. Does Mr. Ó Céidigh know how long he is going to be chairperson for? Has the come into discussions just yet?

I think it is initially for three years. That is my understanding.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes. It is three years.

Hopefully it is longer.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

In an overall context, from a corporate governance perspective, it is really important that you do have new people coming in, new blood and new thoughts. We can sometimes be in a particular position for too long. It does not mean we are doing a bad job or whatever but life evolves, quite frankly. Three years is a key, critical timeframe for Shannon. At that stage we will need to pause and ask where to from here and what has been achieved in those last three years. Whether I am the right person for the role going forward or not, that needs to be decided at that stage because this role is not about me. It is about what we can do together. I have one role in it. It is an important role but it is only one role. This is about all of us together. As I said earlier in response to what Deputy Carey asked at the very beginning about stakeholders, it is so critical. Let us decide after three years whether I am the right person to go forward or not. That is my response to that, if it is okay.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Deputy Cathal Crowe raised a number of really important points which I have made note of. The first main point he made was on Shannon Heritage. The note I have here is "transition". I am not read in and am not really familiar with the situation in the heritage part of Shannon Group yet. I do not have access to documents, information or anything like that because I am not chair. I am not even on the board. It is something we will look at. It is something which, in my view, management would be driving from a transitional process and I hope that would be done. I am confident it will be, and will take all stakeholders, especially staff, into account. As I said at the beginning, I have set up a whole host of different businesses. I have been judge, and so on, of a number of business competitions. I have never seen a company grow in my life. Companies do not grow; people grow. Having said that, the people also have to come on board. There are times where there is pain and suffering for all of us but we need to look at the bigger picture. It is people who will make Shannon Airport grow. I am just one of them.

On the point about "Shannon-shaming", I cannot comment on it, to be honest. As to what is out there, rather than the double "s" in shaming, I prefer the other "s" in support. It is about working together and making it happen. Shannon does many good things for an awful lot of people, which all members know about.

On the category 9 status, it is really important that be maintained. Shannon Airport has invested in the region of, I think, €15 million in the past couple of years in upgrading the airport itself.

The national development plan is hugely welcome.

There should be a rail spur to Galway. Shannon is in County Clare and is between the third and fourth largest cities in Ireland - Limerick and Galway. Galway is critically important to developing Shannon and I will do whatever I can to get Galway people on board. If it costs more to fly out of Shannon, which in many instances I think it will not, I will work on that. I want Galway people to think as the Deputy does in regard to that. I would love if there were to be a rail spur. Public transport to an airport is critically important. Ireland is the only country in Europe without a rail link to any of its main airports - Dublin, Cork or Shannon. That is an indictment of our transport system.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It is the truth.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

On the relationship with the DAA, Shannon does not need to be in conflict with either Cork or Dublin. We can work together and one of my primary objectives will be that we work together. If we fight with each other, it will be a race to the bottom rather than to the top.

Deputy Crowe to conclude.

What are Mr. Ó Céidigh's views on having a hub in the Middle East, such as in Riyadh or in another area?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

A number of good and challenging ideas are coming out of this meeting and that suggestion is definitely one of them. We always focus, particularly in Shannon, on travelling west to New York and Boston because, traditionally, that is where our families emigrated to. However, the connection on the other side is very interesting. I am delighted with the Deputy's initiative to put this suggestion to the Saudi Arabian ambassador, in regard to Riyadh, and for connecting with the CEO in Shannon about it. I am sure the CEO will explore that further. It would be very exciting if we could land a route like that.

I now move to Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne who is substituting. We agreed that substituting members can come in and because the Deputy is from Clare, I want to allow her to contribute as early in the session as possible.

I thank the Chairman for allowing me in at this point. Like the other members, I extend my congratulations to Mr. Ó Céidigh on his new appointment. I look forward to the Shannon Group's board being fully functional. As we are all aware, this position was left vacant for a long time - more than 12 months. It may help to put the Shannon Group into a good place to face the journey of recovery that, invariably, lies ahead. I am glad to hear him speak specifically of the passion, energy and drive he will bring to this role. Those qualities are important going forward. I am grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to attend the committee today to converse with Mr. Ó Céidigh in substitution for Deputy Darren O'Rourke. The Deputy kindly gave me his slot so that I could address Mr. Ó Céidigh given how integral Shannon Airport is to my constituency of Clare. I am aware the remit of the Shannon Group goes beyond the airport and, as Mr. Ó Céidigh stated, the Shannon campus comprises more than 300 companies and is a hive of activity in and of itself. However, most of my questions will mainly focus on the airport.

Since the pandemic struck last March, many people expressed their deepest concerns to me over the decay of Shannon Airport and some went as far as to say that this was evident in pre-pandemic times. Obviously, the aviation industry throughout the island and, indeed, the world, has been one of the industries worst affected because of the significant restrictions on travel, and we are all aware of that fact. Even before the pandemic, Aer Lingus workers expressed industrial relation concerns and many of my constituents reached out to me, including cabin crew workers, air-traffic controllers, maintenance workers etc. to express their concerns on the management of Shannon Airport. Mr. Ó Céidigh informed us of his aim to recover Shannon's air traffic to 2019 levels by 2024. My first question is on the core tenets of the strategy that will make this aim impossible to achieve. Mr. Ó Céidigh said that it is an ambitious target. What are the necessary factors to help or hinder him meeting that target? We had, for example, presentations from members of the Shannon Chamber on the traffic recovery support scheme, TRSS, and the idea around that. What are Mr. Ó Céidigh's views on that?

Will Mr. Ó Céidigh confirm his position on the question of the reintegration of Shannon Airport? We know that previously Shannon Airport was incorporated under the DAA, however, my question is not on this topic. We have received many statements on aviation in recent months and I and other elected representatives, particularly those in Sinn Féin, have called for the establishment of a national airport authority whereby Shannon Airport could be reintegrated. Does Mr. Ó Céidigh endorse a national umbrella for the orchestration of the three main airports in Dublin, Cork and Shannon and what are his views on that? Does he believe Shannon Airport is best placed to run independently? Sinn Féin believes there needs to be equity between these three airports in order to guarantee equitable allocation of resources and funding and to ensure balanced regional development across the whole island. This is an issue about which I have had many conversations with constituents. They are picking up on the language used by the Government around, for example, the importance of regional development, however, that importance is not always the case in reality. This was evident in the number of flights afforded to Shannon Airport during Covid.

What are Mr. Ó Céidigh's views on the proposed rail line in the Limerick-Shannon metropolitan area as outlined in the national development plan published on Monday? I have heard some of his comments on that, however, I am interested in the reaction from Shannon Chamber which is calling the plan quite ambitious and has concerns about how expensive the project will be. What is Mr. Ó Céidigh's vision in this regard? He stated that he is not in the position of the chair at present and, therefore, does not have access to documents. He might come back to me with further clarification on that point as to when that will take place. Pre-emptive to that, what are his views on the rail line and its implementation in the near future? A new hangar has been permitted under the national development plan. Will Mr. Ó Céidigh give us more information on that if possible?

I refer to the transfer of the heritage sites which, all going to plan, will take place by the end of the business year according to responses I have received to parliamentary questions. Until what point will it remain the responsibility of the Shannon Group to manage and maintain the heritage sites? I have also been informed that, in order to mitigate the significant losses incurred by the group over the Covid period, the sites will operate seasonally for the foreseeable future. Will Mr. Ó Céidigh confirm if this means the sites will be closed until the transfer takes place? Will he confirm, based on his negotiations with stakeholders and Clare County Council, that the leaseholder agreements will remain unaffected after the transfer? I welcome any information he may have about the transfer, such as what stage it is at and what it will involve over the coming months.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I appreciate the Deputy's contribution. I will try to address all of her questions but if I miss any, I ask her to let me know. Some of the questions I have already answered to the best of my ability, to be honest, particularly with regard to the heritage sites. There is nothing I can add in that regard. In terms of my negotiations with stakeholders, I have not had any because I am not chairman yet. Indeed, I am not even a member of the board yet so I do not have any authority. I hope to do that pretty soon but I cannot comment on it now.

On the question of adding a hangar, I do not know the answer at this stage because I am not involved. I know that since 2014 Shannon Airport has invested €135 million in various developments across the campus, which is very significant. The campus has been successful from a financial point of view, as was mentioned by Senator Dooley earlier. That leads me to the very important question that Deputy Wynne asked about the reintegration of Shannon Airport into the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA. I cannot speak negatively or positively about that at this stage. All I can say is that back in 2010 to 2014, some of the Deputy's colleagues in these Houses were very keen that Shannon Airport be stand-alone. They felt that Shannon was not getting a fair crack of the whip because it was being treated as the junior partner vis-à-vis the airports in Ireland. That was the very strong feeling on the ground at the time, as I understand it. Deputy Wynne would probably know more about it than me. I understand many stakeholders were involved in negotiations and discussions at that time.

I would think it is better at this stage to view this as a transition process. As the Deputy has rightly pointed out, Covid 19 has absolutely devastated the aviation industry and even more so in places like Shannon Airport as opposed to Dublin Airport. The latter will come back much faster, naturally. I would prefer to hold our thinking on the question of the airport authority for the moment. We must give Shannon Airport the opportunity to breathe again and to have life put back into it, which I am convinced will happen. I sense that there is a very good management team in place and very committed staff there, with whom I am very privileged to work. My sense is that there is a good board there too. I do not know the people on the board but I sense it is more than just a job for them. I would prefer to put that on ice for the moment and see how we get on with the Shannon Group as it is. Sometimes one is better off being smaller and fighting for one's place. We have slightly different objectives to places like Dublin Airport.

The Deputy and others mentioned regionality. Shannon Airport is absolutely core to the region. If one has that really good focus, it gives one a better opportunity to achieve one's objectives rather than being part of a much bigger picture. Having said that, I would not rule it out.

The Deputy mentioned rail lines and ambition-----

I ask Mr. Ó Céidigh to give his view of the overall picture. He made a very interesting observation, that is, that none of the international airports have a rail link.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

They have not, as the Chairman knows.

If Shannon Airport or other airports had a rail link, what dynamic would that bring?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

A rail link to Shannon Airport, which is my primary focus, would be absolutely huge. I would suggest that there should be a rail link between Limerick and Shannon Airport but also between Galway's Ceannt Station and Shannon Airport because I see a lot of growth coming from the Galway region. That would bring seamless access. Oranmore is on the outskirts of Galway city. At the moment, people are driving to Oranmore, getting on a spur and within six minutes they are in Galway station. They do not have to try find parking and it is a lot better, environmentally with a lot less congestion and traffic coming into Galway city. Public transport infrastructure coming into Shannon is critically important and would add huge value.

Deputy Wynne suggested that a rail link is ambitious. Yes, it is ambitious but if the Deputy knows me, she will know that is my middle name. I am an ambitious guy and I cannot help it. I do not always succeed but I will give it my best shot. The key stakeholders are the chambers of commerce in Shannon, Limerick and Galway and I am really keen to meet them as soon as possible to get their input into the whole process. They are a vital cog in all of this and I am glad the Deputy raised that.

I would suggest that the American Chamber of Commerce is also important.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes.

Senator Buttimer is next.

I feel like I am in the dressing room for the All-Ireland Final.

I think the Senator should address us in Irish initially.

Following the interventions of Deputies Carey, Dooley, the Chairman and iar-sheanadóir Ó Céidigh, we are ready to rock and roll. I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom fíorfháilte a chur roimh Phádraig Ó Céidigh. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis agus tá mo thacaíocht iomlán go mór aige mar chathaoirleach nua den bhord Shannon Airport. If an advertisement for the power of experience and the benefit of conducting hearings with potential chairmen is needed, then this morning's meeting is an example that should be shown across the Oireachtas. Mr. Ó Céidigh comes to the position with a vast tome of experience. I am a bit biased on one level because I have fond regard for Mr. Ó Céidigh. He is a person of huge experience and ability and will guide the board of Shannon Airport well. I say that as a partisan Cork person who always advocates for Cork Airport. I am very much taken by his remarks earlier about working together and not having a race to the bottom. I really hope we do not do that.

It would be remiss of me not to ask a couple of questions. It is important for this committee to affirm and support Mr. Ó Céidigh in his new role. Mr. Ó Céidigh made reference earlier to Shannon Airport being a junior partner. We have had an issue with the separation of various airports from the DAA. There was a debate about Cork in the past. Shannon split from the DAA in 2013. Does Mr. Ó Céidigh think that was a good idea? Has it worked for Shannon? I ask that in the context of the questions posed by Deputies Dooley and Carey regarding passenger numbers which plummeted long before Covid was an issue. The airport has not met its passenger number targets at all since the separation in 2013. Has that separation been a success for Shannon Airport?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

If one looks at the overall context and one includes the property income from the Shannon Group, it definitely has been a financial success. It has also been a big financial success for the State and the Government in terms of the extra jobs that have been created and the focus that is around the 300 companies on the campus. Approximately 80 of those companies are focused on aviation, going to the next stage in terms of autonomous driving and so on, which is really cutting edge vis-à-vis transport. From that perspective, it has been successful.

On passenger numbers, there is work to be done but the business model of an airport is different to that of an airline. As an airport, we need to understand the kind of business model that triggers an airline to base an incredibly expensive piece of equipment, an aeroplane, at an airport. I believe Shannon Airport will be successful off its own bat. The transition in 2013 and 2014 was huge and took up an awful lot of staff and management time. The focus was on the transition and then it was on how the airport could become standalone.

As has been mentioned, the best way of becoming stand-alone was deemed to be getting income from renting out the property. A great deal of investment was put into the property in order to make it rentable and to bring in businesses. A lot of great work has been done. As the Chairman and others mentioned, the primary work had to do with driving passenger and flight numbers. That will be the core.

Mr. Ó Céidigh referred to the pre-Covid situation and his aspiration for the period towards 2024. To be fair, he has been clear this morning. There is a clear demarcation between the chief executive and Mr. Ó Céidigh, as board chairman. How will the strategy that Shannon will operate post Covid bring in passengers, given the comments from Deputy Cathal Crowe and others about various airlines?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I am taking this in the context of the Senator's overall question on my role as non-executive chair and the executive team, including the CEO. I am familiar with the relationship between the two. It is important that they work together hand in glove and that we work off our collective strengths.

Senator Buttimer has got to the heart of it. What does Mr. Ó Céidigh view his role as chair as being?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

My role will be a non-executive one but, as Deputy Carey mentioned, it really should be an executive role if we want to get this done fully and properly, particularly for aviation and Shannon while we are coming out of Covid. However, it is what it is.

There is a big difference between the executive and non-executive roles. My role is to understand where Shannon stands right now under the bonnet. I have a sense of it, but I have a lot of learning to do very quickly. The question will then be where it is we want to go. I am keen to return to pre-pandemic levels within three years. I am putting my name to that. It is a clear and specific aim. We know the number - 1.7 million passengers - and the routes. We may or may not succeed, but this is about setting the vision and working with the management team in creating that vision. The management team has good relationships with various airlines, for example, but perhaps I have another relationship with a particular airline, CEO, board chairman or whatever. If I do, then let us use it as a resource in support of Shannon. That is how I view my role. I will provide an example of something that arose just yesterday, so this is my first time mentioning it. I have to go to the US in mid-November, hoping that the US authorities will open up their borders for non-Americans. I have a board meeting relating to something else in Houston, Texas, but I am going to Chicago. I am trying to meet the CEO of United Airlines, whose headquarters are in Chicago. His name is Scott Kirby and I have a funny feeling that he might have a connection with Cork.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I will be over there anyway. Creating that connection would be the soft kind of work I could do. I have not connected with the person yet. I am shooting from the hip and telling the committee this off the cuff.

It is imminent.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I am going to do my best. I might not meet the person, but that is the kind of role I believe I can play in supporting a wonderful CEO and a very good management team.

Senator Buttimer ask a relevant question. Regardless of whether we like it, we are in a Covid era. I hope that we can function normally, but Covid is always lurking in the background. I will not use the word "interfere", but how will that influence or act as a variable in an airport like Shannon getting back to 2019's figures in 2024? How does one factor in Covid? How does it change the dynamic when dealing with airlines and so forth? Mr. Ó Céidigh mentioned the US. We have pre-clearance, which is a major comparative advantage for us.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It is.

Are there areas where we can use that advantage in a Covid environment? What are the implications of the current environment for how an airport like Shannon returns to interacting with airlines like Aer Lingus, Ryanair and others?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Unfortunately, Covid and Covid-type viruses are here to stay. They were here before, but we did not fully recognise them for what they were. We have restructured the way we do business and we look after our staff and passengers. That will continue happening in Shannon.

An aeroplane has similar air filters to the ones found in operating theatres. The filtration of viruses and other particles is as pure as one will find in an operating theatre. That has been the case for years at airlines with newer aircraft, and Ryanair in particular. Ryanair is a world leader in terms of the environment and air filtration.

Shannon has another interesting aspect. There were 1.7 million passengers pre pandemic, but Shannon can cater for more than 4 million. It is a big airport. As such, it is much easier to have physical distancing in a place like Shannon than it is in a place where there is a large number of passengers but a congested area. I hope that, from a marketing point of view, this is one of the points we could make about Shannon. People can park their cars at Shannon Airport and be through security in ten or 15 minutes. There are very few international airports in the world that can provide that.

That is with pre-clearance.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes. That is a great point and makes mine even stronger again. The Covid situation is here to stay. There are Government regulations that all of the committee's members are a part of creating and that we will follow strictly. That said, from a staff point of view and a passenger perspective, we have the physical space to allow us to do what I have set out. The single most important aspect for any airport or airline, even more than money, is the safety of its passengers and staff. If we do not have that, we can forget about everything else.

I will conclude with an overarching point. I hope that Mr. Ó Céidigh, who was a member of the aviation recovery task force-----

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I was.

-----that was set up by the former Minister, Shane Ross, can support our committee and the Government in having a recovery plan for our airports, including Cork, Dublin, Shannon, Galway and Knock.

I have every confidence in Mr. Ó Céidigh. He comes to the position with experience, knowledge and sincerity. This has been a revealing meeting. I wish Mr. Ó Céidigh well in his role. He has my full support.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I thank the Senator. I really appreciate that.

Mr. Ó Céidigh is welcome. With the Chairman, former Senator and now Deputy O'Donnell, Senator Buttimer and Senator Craughwell, we were all in the Seanad together.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is right.

As such, I know Mr. Ó Céidigh a little better than some other members of the committee. For the many reasons he stressed in his opening statement, he is an excellent choice. It does not just have to do with his business background, but also his aviation business background; he is from and lives in the west; and he ran an airline out of Dublin while still living in the west.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is true.

That is a point on which I am not sure anyone has touched. I was in EY a million years ago while training to be an accountant, so I know the company better than many people. To have won those awards and be brought back as a judge says a great deal about Mr. Ó Céidigh's talents and abilities that perhaps many of us do not totally appreciate.

I am speaking as someone who had three west of Ireland grandparents who are unfortunately no longer with us. Equally, though, I am based in Dublin. I am not someone who will say that I do not want Shannon to thrive. Quite the opposite.

If up to 4 million passengers, which is at capacity, wanted to fly out of Shannon Airport rather than Dublin Airport, then it would help the latter as much as the former because many people, particularly in the midlands, automatically think of Dublin Airport. If one lives in Portlaoise or anywhere in the midlands, one is equal distance from Dublin and Shannon Airports. There are car parking charges in Dublin Airport and one must get a bus to get to and from the carparks. One can literally drive straight to Shannon Airport, park one's car and get through security and pre-clearance faster than one will ever get through Dublin Airport. That is always going to be the case as long as Shannon Airport is as small as it is relative to Dublin Airport being as big as it is. Sometimes people forget how convenient Shannon Airport is. I have never flown through Shannon Airport but why would I as I live in Dublin? I have visited Shannon Airport, so I can say I have seen the airport and been inside it. As a committee, or individually, we should visit Shannon Airport but, of course, that would be at the invitation of the chairman-designate.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes.

The fact that the suggestion has come from a Senator who is based in the heart of Dublin is very positive and we will do so.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes. It is a great idea.

I suggest that Cork Airport is included in the visit.

I am happy to make a separate trip to Cork Airport. The chair of Dublin Airport will be here next week.

Senator Buttimer can catch the bus from Cork that delivers passengers to Shannon Airport.

I do not know half enough about Shannon Airport. If I did and others did, then people might use it more.

I hope Mr. Ó Céidigh is appointed chair of the Shannon Group. The group is primarily made up of the airport and everything around it but it is also has a big property portfolio and Shannon Free Zone, which used to be known as the Shannon Development Zone. The group is much bigger than the airport. I do not have enough knowledge about the airport, and I am sure other members of the committee may have more knowledge about it, but not necessarily as much as they could or should have.

Dublin's growth is unhealthy when compared with the rest of the country in terms of airports and many other things. Dublin, as much as anywhere else, needs better balance and there must be a better regional balance between all of the regions. I say that because there are challenges when an area is too busy in terms of house prices being too high, not having enough school places and everything being stressed in a different way. In fact, many people fly out of Dublin Airport because they do not see an alternative, so perhaps Shannon Airport could become an alternative. It is a vicious circle the other way. Nobody flies out of Shannon Airport so, therefore, there are no routes but it is because there are no routes that nobody flies out of Shannon Airport. Let us consider the reverse where people start flying out of Shannon Airport, more routes become available and people realise the airport is fantastic and they can avail of the services very simply.

I do not think anyone has touched on the enormous history of Shannon Airport. I refer to the fact Irish coffee was invented at the airport and that duty free was established there as a concept. It is a fact that Shannon Airport was part of the route through which millions of post-war passengers travelled through. At that time almost everybody who flew out of Paris, London or Amsterdam had to stop-off at Shannon Airport, then Newfoundland and so on. Shannon Airport had a very ingenious relationship with Aeroflot in the 1980s. A Soviet fuel farm was built, the tankers came in, Aeroflot paid for its landing charges in fuel, and fuel was sold to Aer Rianta which sold it on again.

Shannon Airport has been incredibly innovative. Guinness Peat Aviation, GPA, was not the ultimate success but it was based at Shannon. Tony Ryan was very insistent on that and he went on to become Mr. Ryanair. Shannon Airport has an enormous amount of aviation history.

I appreciate that the role of the chair of the Shannon Group is non-executive, which is hands-off as much as it is hands-on, and that the chair is not a chief executive. From the perspective of a transport committee, and really from an Ireland Inc. perspective, it is not Dublin versus Shannon, which Mr. Ó Céidigh referenced earlier. I know that because I listened to all of the contributions in my office. It is Ireland versus other European hubs in the competition for business from Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar or from the west coast of America and so on. I want to put it on record that I do not believe there will be a kickback from Dublin, the Dublin region or Dublin representatives. Many Dublin representatives come from the country or their parents or grandparents did, so these representatives want more balanced regional development. A visit to Shannon Airport would benefit this committee. I wish Mr. Ó Céidigh very well. I did not have questions because my questions were already asked.

The Senator has made a very interesting point. Can Mr. Ó Céidigh tell us why Dublin Airport has grown exponentially relative to the likes of Shannon and Cork Airports? We have talked about the fact Dublin Airport is congested. Shannon Airport has the biggest runway in Europe and huge capacity, so why has Dublin Airport continued to not only increase its passenger numbers but its share has increased exponentially? That is something Senator Horkan has mentioned on many occasions but I have framed the question. I think Senator Horkan posed this question and I ask Mr. Ó Céidigh, who has practical expertise in aviation, why has that happened?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is a fundamentally important question on the economics of transport infrastructure. The single biggest reason is numbers. About 2 million people live within an hour's drive of Dublin Airport or almost half of the population of Ireland. There is another factor to be considered. I do not have the exact figure - I am near enough in percentage terms - but more than 70% of all of the passengers who move in and out of Dublin Airport are delivered by two airlines, that is, Aer Lingus and Ryanair. The headquarters of Ryanair and Aer Lingus are in Dublin. When headquarters are based in a place, then it is more than likely the number of flights will increase. I have listed the two biggest reasons and it is very much a numbers game.

Certainly Mr. Ó Céidigh has my very best wishes and support.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I thank Senator Horkan.

Shannon Airport has an enormous role to play. While it does not have the same catchment in terms of population, one could drive a good bit further and still get through Shannon Airport more quickly than if one had to drive to Dublin and catch a flight from Dublin Airport. Shannon Airport needs to remind people that the region has a smaller local population in terms of Limerick, Shannon and Galway. However, one could drive a good bit further to get to Shannon Airport. There could even be rail links, if we got them up and running. The experience of moving through a small airport, and we have all been through small airports that have 2 million or 3 million passengers a year as opposed to 30 million passengers a year, is a different and much faster experience. If I lived in a place like Portlaoise, if there were flights from Shannon Airport, I would avail of them, even it meant paying an extra €10. The point has been made that flights do not have to be any dearer and surely the cost of running Shannon Airport cannot be more expensive once management gets the economy of scale up and running, per passenger charge. The facilities are all there, and there is under-utilised capacity so let us all try to make it work. I am certainly available to help and support Mr. Ó Céidigh as best I can.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I appreciate that. It is not it case of Shannon or Dublin or Shannon or Cork. It is the same jersey that we all have to wear. If we wear the same jersey, then we will all reach the top but if we do not, then there will be a race to the bottom. It would be a privilege for Shannon Airport to host a visit by the committee if a visit was considered.

Yes, we would love to take up the invitation.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That would be fantastic.

We will visit when Mr. Ó Céidigh has his feet under the table.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

We will send the committee an invitation.

That would be great.

We could fly to Boston then.

We will certainly visit for a good occasion.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Would it not be interesting if the Cabinet came to Shannon?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Such a visit would show real support for regional Ireland, Shannon Airport and the region. Any influence that the committee could have in that regard would be hugely appreciated.

That is an invite we would heartily endorse. A visit by the Cabinet would convey a powerful message.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I think so too.

I suggest the Chairman of this committee writes to the Cabinet recommending a visit.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes, I thank the Deputy.

We will co-ordinate with Mr. Ó Céidigh and the board and we will write to the Taoiseach to set in train a meeting. We are all about getting the flights to Heathrow and transatlantic back. We will try to put that in train very quickly.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Fantastic. Thank you.

The next speaker is Deputy Ó Murchú.

Tá fáilte roimh Phádraig chuig an gcoiste seo. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis as an bpost nua. Is dócha liom go bhfuil an chuid is mó de na baill anseo breá sásta gur ghlac sé leis an bpost. Guím ádh mór air amach anseo agus ar an obair atá roimhe.

An awful lot has been already said. It would be fair to say that Mr. Ó Céidigh is getting a fair hearing and that there is a considerable amount of hope in relation to him taking up this role at what is a difficult time for aviation, particularly Shannon Airport. My apologies to Mr. Ó Céidigh if he has already dealt with some of the issues I want to raise. He mentioned a national airport authority and that he does nor foresee a situation where Shannon Airport necessarily has to be at loggerheads with the DAA, Dublin Airport, Cork Airport and so on. It is about the plans. Mr. Ó Céidigh responded to questions from Deputy Cathal Crowe and other speakers in regard to plans into the future to ensure the viability of Shannon Airport and its role in ensuring regional development. What interactions has Mr. Ó Céidigh had with the DAA and others on those plans? How does he see the future unrolling, in particular in regard to the role of Shannon Airport in ensuring regional development?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Tá Gaeilge bhreá ag an Teachta, bail ó Dhia air.

Bíonn cleachtadh agam minic go leor.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Molaim go gcoinníonn sé suas é. Tá Gaeilge bhreá aige. Is togha fir é. Is breá liom a fheiceáil a ainm i nGaeilge ansin. Is féidir liom an freagra a thabhairt i nGaeilge ach tabharfaidh mé i mBéarla é má tá sé sin ceart go leor.

As I understand it, the Deputy's question is about the relationship with the DAA and so on. I had a communication from the CEO of the DAA, Mr. Dalton Philips, whom I know very well - he is a very good person and CEO - reaching out and stating that it would be lovely if we could work together. That is appreciated. It is an open door. As of now, I have not met the CEO or anybody in that space because I do not have the raison d'être for that, but I hope to do that. I also will work very closely with the CEO of the Shannon Group in regard to the process we go through. I am keen that the board and I will work closely and seamlessly with the management team in Shannon Airport. I do not want to be going over what it is doing. We have to work as a team. I see that as one of the top priorities.

Another top priority, although the Deputy did not ask about it but I mentioned it earlier, is public transport access in and out of Shannon Airport. It is not, in my view, where it should be at. We need to improve that area. An issue not yet mentioned, which is pretty high up on my agenda, is that Shannon Airport become one of the most environmentally friendly airports in the world. There is no reason we cannot achieve that. I am raising that for the first time at this meeting. We can do that.

That would be building into sustainability.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes, absolutely.

Practically, how do you see that happening?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I have done a little bit of personal research on it, but I have a lot more to do. I am sharing things with the committee that I have not yet had an opportunity to share with the management team.

We appreciate that.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I am being totally open with the committee.

We appreciate that.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

First, we would look at our infrastructure and where we get our energy from to see if there are ways we can be much more energy efficient, taking in the environmental requirements as well as we can. In other words, it is about how we operate internally? As part of our conversations with airlines we can look at their environmental strategies. It is an issue we can raise with them but in respect of which we cannot influence them. We can emphasise that that is an important part of our raison d'être in regard to who we are.

I am also keen to learn what other airports do in this particular space and what type of models they use. I do not have that information yet. It is very early stages. This is only at concept stage in my mind. I have done some reading on it and I have had a couple of Zoom calls with some people in this space, in particular a professor in the US who is in this space, but it is too early for me to give any detailed comment at this stage.

Mr. Ó Céidigh stated that he is looking at the long-term viability issue and that public transport at Shannon is not where it needs to be. Airports and climate change do not necessarily have a great relationship, particularly in the media. That is a vital piece of work. Mr. Ó Céidigh mentioned that in terms of communication he will engage in joint planning with the DAA and so on. It goes without saying that that is vital. I would like some more detail on how he sees Shannon Airport progressing into the future and on what proposals he has to ensure the long-term viability of the airport. Mr. Ó Céidigh has great experience in this area and he knows that it has to work as a business.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

The Deputy is correct that it has to work as a business. It is a State organisation. All of the funding invested in Shannon Airport will, hopefully, bring returns for the State. That is important. The more successful we are in Shannon, the more successful and richer will be the State coffers to support all of the investments that are done by the State in different ways. I am cognisant of that. It is a significant responsibility. It is a significant contribution when you can make that happen. We have to try to do that to the best of our ability because our owners are the State.

To achieve the objectives and to get back to 2019 levels in the next three years during my term as non-executive chairperson of Shannon Group, it will be down to stakeholders. There is only a very small amount that I personally can do. I will give it whatever energy I can, but we need the committee to be actively involved and supporting Shannon Airport and regional development strategies. The influence of this committee with the Government and the Department is fundamentally critically important to us. If we get that, it is a big add-on for us. There are other stakeholders, which I mentioned earlier, that are really important to us as well. There is no need for me to mention them again now. The committee has a central role in all of this. As non-executive chairperson, I need to make sure that the committee is engaged and inside the tent working with us and that it supports us yet challenges us in different ways to help us to do our job better than we would if operating in a vacuum. I will be pushing the boat out with the committee to work actively with us. I know I will get its support, on the basis of what I have seen around the table and the people who have contacted me over the last couple of weeks. I am looking forward to working with the committee. That is the best answer I can give Deputy Ó Murchú at this stage.

It is a sufficiently comprehensive answer at this point in time. I imagine some around the table might have a bit more influence with the Government than I do, but I will play whatever small role I can. Guím ádh mór ar Phádraig agus gabhaim buíochas leis.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta - Dia leis. Iarraim go gcoinníonn sé air ag labhairt i nGaeilge.

In terms of housekeeping, we will be writing to the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, and his Cabinet colleagues in regard to a meeting in Shannon Airport and showing the support of Government for what Shannon Airport is doing. We, as a committee, very much look forward to the invite to visit Shannon Airport.

I am delighted Mr. Ó Céidigh has taken up the challenge. He is the person for the job and we will work with him, which goes without saying. Shannon Airport is fundamentally an airport. The Tánaiste is on record, and I brought this up in the Dáil, as saying Government is willing to put money into the reactivation of strategic routes and the continuation of strategic routes. I namechecked the Heathrow, Boston and New York routes as three critical routes out of Shannon Airport. Heathrow is up and running with one flight but we want three. We have Boston and New York. All flights are with Aer Lingus, but I am not taking away in any way from other airlines. Ryanair is hugely important. Mr. Ó Céidigh mentioned the statistic that 70% of flights out of Dublin are Ryanair and Aer Lingus. Willie Walsh, former CEO of IAG and now with IATA, said that 60% of all flights out of Ireland were with Aer Lingus and Ryanair, so they are critical.

Will Government support be required when the runway in Cork reopens to ensure the Heathrow slots are retained by Aer Lingus, that we get early morning and late night flights, that we get the three flights per day and that we get the Boston and New York flights back with Aer Lingus in March or as early as possible? What form should that Government support take? That is the bread and butter.

I can go out my front door and go to the Hurlers pub in Castletroy where I can get a bus to Dublin Airport. Why can I not go to D'Olier Street in Dublin and get a bus to Shannon Airport? There is a requirement for marketing.

Can Mr. Ó Céidigh deal with the first question on three flights per day to Heathrow and on the Boston and New York flights? The Government is saying it will put money into a hierarchy of routes and the Tánaiste said the three routes I mentioned, Heathrow, Boston and New York, were not wide off the mark. What does Shannon Airport need in Government supports to increase the number of flights to Heathrow from the one to three flights per day with better times, morning and evening, and to get the Boston and New York flights back with Aer Lingus? It is a hard question but it is fundamental.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is the core of it. About two weeks ago Spain approved €2.3 billion in airport infrastructural investments between 2022 and 2026 and Aena, the company that manages a number of airports in Spain, is freezing airport tariffs. I am not asking the Irish Government to put in anything like that but two things need to be done. I mentioned one in the opening statement. The inclusion of Shannon Airport in the State's regional airports programme is hugely important as it will help drive future development and growth bringing certainty and predictability in uncertain times, in particular in Covid-19 times. If the Government brought Shannon Airport under that State regional airports programme, that would be quite significant. That is a long-term, permanent request.

The second requirement is more short term. If we can get airlines into Shannon Airport - I mention London Heathrow, New York and Boston - and if we can say to Aer Lingus, Ryanair and other airlines that for a period of three years, while they are building their market, they will not have to pay any landing or airport charges and that we will get that money from the Government for a period of three years following which it will be tapered off, that would incentivise them to come in. There are other airports around Europe which are looking for Aer Lingus and Ryanair airplanes and which are offering that type of deal. If we are not-----

Does Mr. Ó Céidigh have first-hand knowledge of that?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes. If we are not on the pitch, we are not in the game. That is as direct an answer as I can give the Chairman.

We need to talk business. That is why we want someone like Mr. Ó Céidigh as chairman. How quickly does that need to be up and running?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Both of those can be up and running in a matter of weeks, based on a Cabinet decision.

Then I suggest the Cabinet should go to Shannon Airport as soon as possible if we are serious about balanced regional development and the airport. We are coming out of Covid-19, with passenger numbers at fewer than 3 million. Under European Commission rules, there is scope there for the Government to provide support. That would be Mr. Ó Céidigh's fundamental request on the flights at the moment.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That would give us the opportunity to work really hard to make it happen, and then we would have an incentive for the airlines to come with us. Initially airlines are not going to make money on services as it takes time to build them up. I want to reduce their financial risk and when the passenger numbers are up to a sustainable level and they are getting a return on their investment, the Government funding should taper off.

The final question is on the marketing of the airport. Is it realistic to expect that you could have a model where people come by bus from Dublin to Shannon Airport to get flights out of it or is that pie in the sky?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It veers more in the direction of pie in the sky, if I can be blunt about it.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It is because of the number of flights. For example, today you have in the region of 170 flights in and out of Dublin Airport and probably eight or nine out of Shannon Airport. It is because of the choices and the options people have in Dublin.

The support has to come from Government for no landing or airport charges for a period of three years following which they would taper off. What is the target market for passengers who will fly from Shannon Airport?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

There is a primary market and a secondary market. In regard to the primary market, when we were in school we had a compass with a pin and a pencil at each end. If we put the pin of the compass on Shannon Airport and drew a circle around it, it would cover Clare, north Cork, a good bit of Kerry, the midlands, as was mentioned earlier, Galway, parts of Roscommon and the western seaboard. There are approximately 1.2 million people living in that broad area. That is the core of the compass.

In regard to the secondary part, it goes back to an important question asked earlier about the relationship between Shannon Airport and the various airports. There are routes that Shannon should be providing that may not be provided out of Dublin Airport or Cork Airport, and vice versa, so we could work together as a team wearing the one green jersey. Therefore, if you want to get secondary markets for people who want to go to those destinations, rather than duplicating things where everyone wants to go here or there, we should work together on the basis that there are some routes which are more suitable to Shannon. If somebody from Dublin wants to go to a particular destination, it should be worth his or her while driving or, preferably, getting a train or a bus and travelling to two hours to Shannon Airport in order to go directly to that destination. That is part of what I would like to explore with Cork and Dublin Airports.

On Government support for the strategic Heathrow, Boston and New York routes, in the form of, say, no landing and airport charges over a three year period, what are the implications if such support is not forthcoming?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It is like driving a car with your hands tied behind your back. It might happen. It would be a huge risk. You could crash. The effect of it happening with it versus without it is hugely significant. I am not saying we will not achieve it but the risk of not achieving it is so much higher. Actually, the more important point is the Exchequer will make that money back in jig time because of the passengers going through and the extra revenue. As I said at the beginning, the members, myself and all Irish taxpayers own Shannon Airport.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It is a financial investment they will make which they will get back in jig time.

If this money is put on the table by Government in the form of these supports, will it speed up the process of getting the three daily flights from Heathrow in the morning, daytime and evening and getting the Boston and New York flights back? Will it speed up the process?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I think it would accelerate it no end. I obviously cannot speak on behalf of Aer Lingus, which traditionally provided those routes. However, if the CEO or myself, or both of us, go to Aer Lingus, say there is Government support for this and it is absolutely committed to it, and ask its management if it would go with it, I would be very surprised if it showed us the door and said "No". I would be very surprised but I cannot speak on its behalf. I am very confident we would get the routes.

Does Mr. Ó Céidigh think it would happen reasonably quickly?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes, absolutely.

Thank you, Mr. Ó Céidigh. A few non-members of the committee have indicated so I will go to them. There will be roughly five minutes for each, then I will go back to members. We have Senators Conway, Maria Byrne and Gavan and Deputy McNamara.

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to come in and have a word. First of all, I congratulate Mr. Ó Céidigh.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I thank the Senator.

He is an inspired choice for this role. He will embrace it and he will love it. As we all know from our time working with him, he is a man who wants results and he does not hang around unless he gets them. There are huge expectations on him and I know he is well capable of delivering on them.

I will begin with a quick question. Is Mr. Ó Céidigh disappointed we do not have a proper aviation plan from Government at this stage, post pandemic?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

The short answer is definitely "Yes". As mentioned earlier, I was a member of the aviation task force set up in May or June of last year. We got very busy people involved, who understand aviation inside out. The delay in executing some of the key aspects there is disappointing, quite frankly. The fact we did not follow what was happening in European aviation was disappointing, to be honest, and left the industry in an extremely precarious situation. This is particularly the case for an island economy like ours. We do not have a bridge to Europe. Aviation is our bridge.

Mr. Ó Céidigh thinks it is going to take us a bit of time to mend that, given we did not co-ordinate with Europe and operate a similar strategy to the one other European countries did.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes, definitely. It is going to take us longer. In answer to the question the Chairman had there a minute ago, if the Government is proactive and works hand in hand with us on some of the suggestions I made, we can get on the pitch and back on the playing field pretty quickly again.

Okay. I like Mr. Ó Céidigh's presentation of this, namely, that there is no point in us competing with Dublin or Cork and we must work with them. We must have, as he said, our primary and then our secondary targets. That is all very well but what does he want to see in an aviation plan that will assist Shannon in the first instance, but also all three airports, to recover? What are the three key elements? He has already spoken this morning about the three-year deal on airport charges, landing fees and so on. Outside that though, what do we need to do in this aviation plan to drive Shannon and indeed drive all three airports?

Mr. Ó Céidigh is aware there is a new aviation strategy about to commence. He might answer in that context as well.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes. I am aware the Department is very actively involved in that particular space. From my engagement with the Department, it is very much on board and keen to have an effective aviation strategy for Ireland. I will say a couple of things. What is the vision? What do we want to achieve here? Given where we are coming from, that is, we are an island nation physically surrounded by water, what is the purpose of the aviation strategy? The first and primary purpose is connectivity, and connectivity with the world. How do we create that connectivity? What strategies do we need to have in place to make that connectivity as seamless as possible? On that connectivity, where are the key areas we want that connectivity? I am talking about, as the Chairman, Senator Dooley and others have said, London Heathrow with three flights a day at the proper times and the transatlantic routes. A very interesting point was raised by Deputy Cathal Crowe in relation to Riyadh. Where we want to get to is fundamental in this. Then there is the matter of what do we need from an infrastructure to help us get there. To me, effective public transport links to the airports are really important. Who are some of the key stakeholders to help us there? One such stakeholder is Tourism Ireland due to its marketing of the island of Ireland internationally. I would also welcome an opportunity to meet with and discuss the strategy the organisation may have for Belfast International Airport, George Best Belfast City Airport, and City of Derry Airport because that should be part of the overall sense of people coming to the island. That is not a political statement or anything. It is a purely economic practical statement, to be honest.

Yes, that is very important.

We have been talking about passengers and they are the key, and what this is all about. The other side of it is that Mr. Ó Céidigh is going to be chair of the Shannon company and there is huge potential for an aviation school perhaps, and pilot training facilities. There is a lot of land in Shannon and a lot of capabilities. Consider what has happened with aircraft leasing and all that over the years. Much of that started in Shannon, going back to Guinness Peat Aviation, GPA. Thus we must look at the side industries that can develop around an airport as well. They could create thousands of jobs. There is no reason that cannot happen in Shannon and the mid west.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That again is thinking outside the box. There is a very fine training school in Cork. There was one, about four to six years ago in Waterford that did not work and had to close down, unfortunately. Members may be aware many people actually remortgaged their homes to do pilot training which is very expensive. An aviation school is very interesting. The possibility of working with the University of Limerick, Limerick Institute of Technology or the National University of Ireland Galway might be a really interesting concept to explore from that perspective. I might add that pilots must do ongoing training every six months. It is mandatory. I am sorry, the training is at least once a year. It is a health check they must do every six months. There is the possibility to develop simulator training, what is called sim training. There is one in Dublin at the moment and that caters for a fair amount but there may be the possibility of more, or that company may be interested in setting up simulator training programmes in Shannon, for example. Senator Conway's point is well made and I have made a note of it. I thank him.

Mr. Ó Céidigh is very welcome here. It is good to see him. I have many happy memories of our time in the Seanad together. I congratulate him on his imminent appointment and thank him for coming in.

Shannon Airport is very important for the region. Coming from Limerick city, I know it is important to many businesses in the region. I had to speak in the Chamber and I apologise if some of my questions have been asked already. In terms of the Aer Lingus London to Shannon service which will operate for ten weeks while Cork Airport is closed, Mr. Ó Céidigh said he was willing to work with Aer Lingus to expand on that. I would like the airport to be developed as a European hub. When I was a member of a committee in the past I had to travel to Brussels a good deal. There is no connectivity between Shannon Airport and Brussels. The representatives of many companies travel to European cities on business trips and Brussels and Amsterdam would be key cities. I would like connectivity to be developed between Shannon Airport and one of those key cities. Many business people have to travel to Dublin Airport to get flights to those cities. If such connectivity was available on their doorstep in Shannon Airport, they would use it.

Regarding transatlantic routes, I welcome the announcements made by United Airlines and American Airlines. Has Mr. Ó Céidigh any plans to expand those routes or to consider flights to other areas?

To follow up on Senator Conway's thinking on the setting up of an aviation school, there are many aviation leasing companies in the region. Many companies with a link to the airport have based themselves in Shannon. Has Mr. Ó Céidigh any plans to examine other options in terms of companies locating on the grounds of Shannon Airport?

While the number of passengers travelling through the airport have dropped, I was there recently when the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, visited the airport and it was good to see many cars in the car park compared to a few months previously when there were only about 20 in it. Things are coming back. Shannon Airport has one of the longest tarmac runways in the country. It is the only airport in the country that is open 24-7, 365 days a year. Shannon is very proud of that. Has Mr. Ó Céidigh any options to expand connectivity to other destinations to create a regional balance with Dublin? Dublin Airport is very busy. While the number of people travelling is reduced, can expanded connectivity to other destinations such as Asian countries be explored? To travel to those destinations or to Australia, one has to travel from Dublin Airport? Is Mr. Ó Céidigh considering other options?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

The Senator's colleague, Deputy Cathal Crowe, commented at the start of the meeting on conversations he has had with the Saudi Arabian ambassador on flights to Riyadh, which we will follow up on and I look forward to that opportunity. Traditionally, going west is where we have flown, but going east, much can be done in that direction.

Regarding specific routes, I have not had an opportunity to drill down, go underneath the bonnet and see the engine in the context of where Shannon Group is at and whether there are specific routes from Shannon. I am still not chairperson of the Shannon Group. The Senator might excuse my lack of detailed knowledge of that.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I am more than happy to come back to the Senator on a one-to-one basis and share that information with her.

What the Senator referenced about Shannon was mentioned earlier, and I will not take up too much of the committee's time on this, but it is an important point. The first transatlantic flight happened in 1945. Shannon Airport was the world's first duty free airport in 1947. Senator Horkan mentioned some of this history, which got me thinking about this. Shannon Airport had Europe’s first US border pre-clearance in 1986. The runway Senator Byrne mentioned is 3,199 m, which is the longest in Ireland. It is designated at the alternative landing site for the space shuttle. There is much to be proud of in Shannon Airport. It is important not to forget what its contribution has been. That is also part of our future. It does not mean we always look back but we must recognise where we are coming from. I can understand where the board of the group was coming from in 2013. It wanted to have a proper solid cash flow and a good base underpinning it. I can understand its focus on the property and income from it. That has been achieved and, as the Chairman said, going forward it is about air services and passengers. That is my primary focus in my involvement on the board for my three years in this position.

Senator Byrne mentioned the establishment of an aviation business hub. Currently, more than 300 companies are located on the Shannon Airport campus and more than 80 of those are purely aviation related. It is by far the largest such grouping in Ireland. Obviously, we must place an emphasis on that. Shannon could be the Silicon Valley in that space with respect to aviation hubs. A number of aircraft leasing companies and so on are based there. All those companies are going through a tough time. Industries directly and indirectly connected with aviation are going through a very tough time. This is a transition period. It is important the message that goes from this meeting is not to have too high expectations but to have realistic expectations. We will not change the world here overnight. The first transatlantic flight landed in Shannon in 1945. That is a good few years ago. I do not think any of us was born at that stage.

Not that we are aware of.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Let us be realistic. Let us take it step by step and it will be small steps. Let us make sure we are going in the right direction. That will be my role as the non-executive chairman of the group. It will also be to listen to the members of the committee and other stakeholders. There have already been a number of valuable contributions from a business and strategic point of view, on which I have made notes and which we will definitely consider and follow up. Also, at this meeting in my view it has emerged that the committee, and the Chairman is supportive of this, will have one of its meetings in Shannon. It will request a letter be sent to the Taoiseach asking for a Cabinet meeting to held in Shannon to show support for it. There is also a strategy on zero landing fees and airport fees for airlines to get services up and running on a tapering basis for three years. Shannon is part of the regional airport policy and strategy. If we can get those across the line, we will be going in a very good direction.

I thank Mr. Ó Céidigh and wish him all the best in his new role.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I appreciate that.

I call Senator Gavan and she has five minutes.

It is great to see Mr. Ó Céidigh.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It is great to see the Senator too.

There is a real sense of optimism here today and it is well founded.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I thank the Senator for that.

One of the things I have always admired about Mr. Ó Céidigh is the fact that he is a direct talker. He has been very direct and clear today about what he wants to see back from the Government. It is great to get that refreshing directness. He will bring new thinking, new ideas and a can-do attitude to his role. It is a good day for Shannon-----

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I thank the Senator for that comment.

-----and for the west. I know what a champion of the west he has always been.

I want to raise an issue with him that has been referenced by a few colleagues. When he said we have to wear the same jersey, he was right. I agree with him. When he said we must avoid a race to the bottom, he is spot on. The difficulty is that under the current structure Shannon is not wearing the same jersey. It is a wearing a different jersey from the jerseys of Dublin and Cork. Is it realistic on an island this small to pit Shannon in direct competition with Dublin and Cork? I will cite the most stark example of that. Following the separation of Shannon Airport, the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA. moved its shared services centre, which was based in Shannon, because it did not want to give revenue to a competitor. That is how stark it is. I am pleased Dalton Philips has wished Mr. Ó Céidigh well and I do not doubt his sincerity in that regard. However, the current structure pits Shannon against Dublin as a competitor. I know from talking to the workers in Shannon Airport and having linked in particularly with the trade union representatives, who are passionate about Shannon, that they are very clear about the fact that the separation has failed. It is an issue that will have to be tackled. With all the good intentions we have, and the fact there was a united call from the Oireachtas transport committee for a new national airport authority, this is the key issue that must be tackled because unfortunately the current structure puts Shannon in competition with Dublin.

Does Mr. Ó Céidigh see that as a problem?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

In the past Shannon would have been seen as being in competition with Dublin and various people would have said so. I accept that was the situation. It is going to be a big challenge for me. Indeed, it is one of the key challenges I face but as Senator Gavan knows, if there is not a big challenge, I am not interested. I cannot help it. It is the Connemara in me, it is my DNA. I cannot help it. We should see what we can do for the moment.

I am very cognisant of what happened back in 2012 to 2014, when the people of Shannon and their public representatives were involved in a huge movement to make Shannon Airport independent. They argued that Shannon was being lost in the bigger picture by virtue of being part of the DAA. I want to be respectful of that but that does not mean the airport and the authority should not be connected as they were, prior to 2012. I do not know the answer to that yet but I am more than happy to come back again and have that conversation with Senator Gavan on a one-to-one basis. I would be delighted to meet him at some stage to get his views, input and support on it. I would also be happy to come back to the committee but at this stage, I would prefer to focus on the direction we heading in the short term at least and we will see what success we can achieve from that perspective. That said, it is not something that I would throw out at this stage. It is an important part of the analysis of the long-term future of Shannon Airport and an important part of the debate.

I suspect the Department is due to review its national aviation policy. Mr. Ó Céidigh will be aware that this committee completed a report on aviation last year and suggested that this is an area that needs to be reviewed. We are all trying to get to the same place. The core issue at the moment is getting planes into the air but Senator Gavan makes a very valid point.

I have two further questions, if I may. Back in 2011 Booz consultants reported that if Shannon Airport was to become independent, it would require a separate income stream to support it financially. It may be difficult for our guest to answer this question before he takes up his new role, but where does Mr. Ó Céidigh see that income stream coming from? Shannon Airport has never actually had a steady income stream which, in fairness to the current management, makes it very difficult to plan ahead. Decisions by Government are made on a year-to-year basis as opposed to any long-term financial commitment. This is resulting in increased borrowings for the airport which is a key issue.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Yes, it is a key issue. The Senator has put his finger on a very important point. The key issue is where the Government, as the key stakeholder and owner of Shannon Airport, sees it going in the long term. Reference was made to the aviation and transport strategy document which is being prepared at the moment and input into that by this committee and others would be very valuable.

If the 2011 report to which Senator Gavan refers is the same as the one as I read, it also suggested that there would be between 2.5 million and 2.7 million passengers in Shannon, which never happened. The figures were very high and I believe that report was way too optimistic. I would have questions in relation to-----

What does Mr. Ó Céidigh believe is a realistic passenger number target for Shannon Airport? What would he like to see?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

In three years I would love to see 1.7 million passengers back there, as was the case in 2019. That would be a huge achievement, from my perspective. My role is a non-executive one but as part of my time there, I would love to tick the box in terms of achieving that. Over time and with the right support, Shannon Airport could reach between 2.5 million and 3 million passengers, a level that makes the airport viable on a stand-alone basis. The European figures are in or around 2.5 million to 3 million passengers to make a-----

When does Mr. Ó Céidigh deem that to be a realistic target? Would 2024 be realistic?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is probably a six-year target.

Mr. Ó Céidigh is suggesting 2024 for 1.7 million passengers and then 2027 for 2.5 million to 3 million.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

In that region, yes and I believe Shannon Airport can get there. I would be really confident it can get there.

It is great to hear that optimism. I will squeeze in one last question, if I may-----

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Senator Gavan asked a question earlier which I do not think I answered but I have forgotten what it was.

I do not think so.

I think Mr. Ó Céidigh has answered my other questions, in fairness.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I want to be respectful to the Senator's questions.

It is so refreshing to get straight answers and it bodes well for the future. I had a really good meeting with representatives of Limerick Chamber of Commerce and Mr. Ó Céidigh is going to have a great relationship with that body in the years to come. Like us, the chamber is really passionate to see the early morning London flight return. A lot of key industries in Limerick and Shannon depend on that early morning flight. Mr. Ó Céidigh has said some very positive things but does he think we can get that early morning Aer Lingus flight back and secured? The fact that people can travel in and out of London in a single day is the value of that flight for businesses across the mid-west. Is Mr. Ó Céidigh optimistic that we will get that back in the near future?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I am optimistic that we will make every effort to do so. Ultimately it is an Aer Lingus decision because it owns the Heathrow slots but it will certainly not be for the want of trying on our part. Senator Gavan mentioned Limerick Chamber of Commerce, which is a key stakeholder in all of this. I am really looking forward to engaging with the chamber. I am delighted to hear that Senator Gavan met chamber representatives and had a conversation around these issues. Every political person in the region should have a good, strong relationship with their local chamber of commerce and I am sure they do. I hope the Government supports the recommendation supported by the Chairman and this committee that there would be zero landing charges and airport charges for airlines for three years. Airlines will be losing money for the next couple of years until they build up the market again. Zero landing charges would attract them in and would give people like me, the CEO of Shannon Airport and others, leverage with the airlines. We would be able to encourage them to come in and give it a shot.

That would tie in with the 2024 target-----

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Exactly, yes.

I will finish by wishing Mr. Ó Céidigh well and assuring him of the full support of Sinn Féin and particularly of me and Deputy Quinlivan.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I thank Senator Gavan. I really appreciate that.

Deputy McNamara is next.

I congratulate Mr. Ó Céidigh on his appointment which will be beneficial not just for the mid-west but for the entire west and the Shannon region. I have six questions and I hope Mr. Ó Céidigh will answer them all, if possible. He mentioned promoting Shannon's environmentally-friendly credentials. He will be aware that Shannon Airport has the longest runway in Ireland which enables planes to take off with a higher load than they can from shorter runways, thereby delivering greater fuel efficiency per passenger than is possible from any other Irish airport or, indeed, many other airports across Europe. This brings me to a question about fifth freedom flights, that is, flights which start outside of the EU and whose destination is also outside of the EU, with Ireland as a transit point where passengers can board or disembark. Shannon Airport was very much the fifth freedom hub in Ireland for a long time but was undercut by Dublin. Shannon Airport went after Ethiopian business and was on the verge of signing a deal with Ethiopia when it was undercut, possibly with the help of an Irish Minister of State with responsibility for overseas aid at the time. What now for fifth freedom flights? The fifth freedom flights arriving into Dublin provide relatively little added value to the Dublin region but would be very beneficial to Shannon in driving economies of scale. Is that something that can be pursued?

Mr. Ó Céidigh has repeatedly said that he is a non-executive chairman.

Will he explain the difference between an executive chair and a non-executive chair? I have a related question. Mr. Ó Céidigh said that his role is to determine the strategic direction of the airport,. Whose role is it to drive matters and achieve that strategic direction if he remains a non-executive chair?

Antigen testing was very topical at this committee for a while. As a State, and unlike almost all other EU member states, we do not seem to have moved very much on this. How important is antigen testing as an alternative to PCR testing in attracting people, and especially Europeans, to come back to Shannon Airport and to Ireland more generally?

Reference was made to Dublin Airport buses. Mr. Ó Céidigh will be aware that the buses that serve Dublin Airport and the city of Dublin are blue. They stopped throughout the pandemic and were not running. There was no bus from Ballsbridge or from Leopardstown, take your pick, to Dublin Airport yet there was a bus from Shannon Airport to Dublin Airport throughout. Can we get to the bottom of that? Who is funding that? It is clear that someone is doing so. If it was not commercially viable to run a bus from Ballsbridge or Clontarf to Dublin Airport and it was viable to run a bus from the door of Shannon Airport to Dublin Airport, it begs some serious questions about fairness and a level playing field. Will Mr. Ó Céidigh be raising this with the Government to get to the bottom of it? I suggest that it is indicative of something bigger.

There has been a great deal of talk about Heathrow slots. At the moment, however, the only slots that are being utilised are those relating to Cork. How real is the risk of losing the Heathrow slots when the guarantee runs out next year?

My final question is more of a statement, although I try not to make statements.

The Deputy might not be correct in that.

We all fail occasionally. There is a proposal to bring the Cabinet to Shannon Airport. Unless they are coming with a strategy for Shannon Airport, which has been sorely absent up to now, I respectfully suggest that the airport would be better off bringing Duffy's Circus to Shannon because at least it would bring a crowd.

That is a statement of sorts. We will ask Mr. Ó Céidigh to deal with the five key questions.

The last was a statement.

There were six before it.

Okay. There were six key points raised by Deputy McNamara.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

If I miss out on one of the Deputy's questions, I ask that he please come back to me. Reference was made to the environment, fifth freedom flights and transit. I really do not know a lot about that yet, but it is something I am keen to learn about. I have made a note of it. I cannot offer a comment until I have enough information on that, which I hope to get over the coming weeks as I read myself properly and fully into my new role as non-executive chairman.

This brings me to the Deputy's second question about the difference between the non-executive and executive chairman role. As I see it, a non-executive chair is very much a part-time role, the primary function of which is to chair anything between eight to ten board meetings a year, each lasting up to two to three hours and sometimes longer. The executive chair is a full-time role. That is the primary difference. The Deputy also asked about the difference between the chair, the chief executive officer and the management team, and the strategic direction. In my view, it is the board and not the chair. The chair facilitates the board. The board creates the vision and works on the strategy with the management team. Fundamentally, strategy is very simple. The Deputy spoke of strategic direction. With strategic direction, we start off knowing where we are at now. It is totally honest, with no sort of bias. It is just a case of asking where we are at now. Then we ask where it is we want to get to. Strategy is the bridge we build between where we are now and where we want to get to. It is the board's role, in my view, to work with the management team in creating a realistic and effective strategy in creating it. It is the management team's function to execute on the strategy. Management are primarily in execution mode. The board is not necessarily in execution mode. All of the board, including me, are non-executive. There are many other things going on in their lives, as is the situation with most, if not all, other State boards. That is the difference in the role of the board versus the role of the executive.

With regard to the third question on antigen testing and the alternative to PCR testing, for the life of me I absolutely cannot understand why Ireland has been dragging its heels in respect of testing that is taking place in the EU and elsewhere. I have watched parts of other committee meetings when people have been brought in here. I am subject to correction on this but it may have been Professor Ryan who said that they do not have a real issue with airlines. I remember raising this point also during a radio interview. The air filtration in an aeroplane is similar air filtration to an operating theatre. It is of that incredibly high standard.

It may have been Professor Ferguson.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Was it? I cannot remember the details.

It was that the risks were not as high.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Exactly. The risks are not as high. I cannot understand why we are not using a simple and effective PCR test, and especially now with the numbers of people who have been vaccinated. The logic escapes me. Maybe I am missing something.

Question number four was about no buses to Dublin Airport. I was thinking to myself that I would not know this because I have not been in Dublin Airport in a long time. I have been cocooned in Connemara, which is a great place to be cocooned by the way. The Deputy asked about the bus between Shannon and Dublin and who funds it. I have not a clue but I will make an inquiry.

It is okay. That would be a very interesting discussion with Mr. Dalton Philips of the DAA. It would be nice to know the facts.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It would be no harm, and I thank the Deputy for raising it. I have not a clue about that. In the first instance perhaps I will raise it with the CEO of Shannon Airport to see if she is aware of it. We will probably take it from there.

The fifth question concerned the Heathrow slots and the risk of losing them. Yes, I definitely would be concerned about that. Maybe it is wishful thinking on my part, but I do not believe it is going to happen. I mentioned earlier the numbers of passengers in and out of the UK from Shannon Airport was in the region of 600,000. The number of passengers in and out of Heathrow from Shannon Airport was 268,000 in 2019. That is a fair number of passengers. Any airline should be able to make a return on that if it has a reasonably decent cost structure. I am very hopeful that we would get Shannon Airport back in there. There is, however, a risk of losing it. The Deputy is right.

If those three Heathrow routes, in the mornings and returning through the day, were up and running and making money-----

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is absolutely right. I understand that they were profitable for Aer Lingus when they were doing them.

That is the key.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is the key. I do not see any reason those routes would not come back. If we could incentivise them, as was mentioned earlier, it would help to make the decision easier, get them back faster and grow faster, and support Shannon Airport faster. The owners of Shannon Airport is the Exchequer, which is you and me and all of us. I believe we are going to get a return on our investment very quickly. It is a no-brainer to be honest.

I have answered five. The sixth question-----

The question on the fifth freedom flights and the environment were separate, and the question on the strategic plan and the strategic direction was slightly different from the non-executive chair question. I have quick follow-up on that. Are there State boards where there are executive chairs as opposed to non-executive chairs and executive directors as opposed to non-executive directors? Does Mr Ó Céidigh believe that this needs to be considered given the scale of the challenge faced by Shannon Airport at the moment?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I am not aware of whether there are executive chairs of boards. I genuinely do not know. It may be worth sending a letter to see if that is the situation. I believe that we are in a very particular situation regarding the aviation sector. Regardless of who the person is, I really believe that an executive chair is critical for Shannon Airport in the short to medium term, not long-term, because of the position in which we find ourselves.

Some 1.7 million passengers passed through Shannon in 2019. Last year, there were approximately 360,000. That is 20% of the previous figure. If we are to do our best to get back to that point, which is what I am putting my name on the table for, we have to multiply the passenger numbers fourfold, or 400%. That is a serious challenge and will not be easy. We will need the committee's help to get there.

I again wish Mr. Ó Céidigh every success in his role.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Thank you very much. I appreciate it, and I look forward to working with the Deputy in the future.

I propose that we now go back to members of the committee. They will have about three or four minutes each. This has been fruitful. This is the first three-hour session we have had so we are delighted that Mr. Ó Céidigh is here. There is such a huge interest in what he is doing. I will start with Deputy Carey.

This has been a very positive engagement. I commend Mr. Ó Céidigh on his interaction with this committee and I look forward to working with him into the future. One of the key issues that has emerged is the need for an executive chairperson position at the helm of the Shannon Group. I am proposing that we as a committee petition the Minister for Transport regarding that role. This role needs to be hands-on and Mr. Ó Céidigh has the time available, as well as the energy and passion.

Is this a role that Mr. Ó Céidigh has the capacity to take on at this time?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is a good question. I would create capacity to make it happen. In fairness to the Minister and the Department, what was advertised was a non-executive role and it was on that basis that people made submissions. To do it properly, it would be a full-time executive role. That will not necessarily be the case long term, but it is right now.

Over what period would that be full-time?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Initially, I would suggest an 18-month period with a review at that stage.

How would Mr. Ó Céidigh envisage a working week as executive chair as opposed to as non-executive chair? What type of time would he be giving to the role?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

It would vary week to week because there are times when the chair might need to travel with some of the management team or the CEO and they could be gone for three, four or five days. It is a full-time job. In other words, it would definitely be 40 hours a week or even more than that.

They would also need back-up from an administrative point of view and an office.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

They would need an office and secretarial support. For me, the kind of secretarial support that would be great to get would be a young girl, boy or man who has come out of college and is eager to learn about the aviation industry. They could download whatever is inside this grey head of mine and those of others as regards what it is all about. They could then develop themselves and create positive influences on aviation in Shannon Airport and in the aviation industry in Ireland. There are enough third level institutions between Limerick and Galway so there are plenty of people who would love that level of experience. As the committee members will know, I am adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at the National University of Ireland Galway and I am passionate about education. I have already had a brief conversation on the phone with the CEO of Shannon Airport about this but it is important that we have a very strong, positive open relationship with third level institutions and this would be one part of where that would develop.

I think it is agreed that we would make moves to recommend that.

On that point, there is precedent in a number of areas where, on occasion, a State board, through the decision of a Minister or the Government, has upgraded the position of chair to that of executive chair for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it might be based on the departure of management, which is not the case in this instance. We have a fantastic CEO but the scale of the challenge in terms of the recovery from Covid necessitates some positive discrimination towards Shannon Airport. The challenge Mr. Ó Céidigh faces is enormous. He has outlined the difficulties, and he needs all hands on deck. Normally, the role of chairman is somewhat hands-off in nature. There is a board meeting once a month for a company that is progressing in a normal environment involved in corporate governance and all the standard things. This is a roll-up-the-sleeves, hands-on-deck scenario for everybody. Mr. Ó Céidigh has indicated a willingness and a capacity to work outside of Shannon, to travel and meet with airlines, chief executives and players in the industry. That requires a significant time commitment. In that context, I would be more than happy to second the proposal put forward by Deputy Carey. Maybe we could write to the Minister about it. I do not think it in any way takes from what was advertised because that was then and this is now. That process was opened up a long time ago, long before the State realised the consequences for the aviation sector as a result of Covid. The previous chairman's role ended a long time ago so there has been a process in place for a long time but there is justification for doing this, looking at all the concerns.

The one key issue that remains is the notion of separation. I was probably a lone voice against separation at the time because I felt that Shannon Airport would never be able to compete effectively. Separation was sold on the basis that a leaner, fitter Shannon could challenge Dublin. Truthfully, that did not materialise and, based on what Mr. Ó Céidigh has said, it is never really going to happen. It is about working with Dublin. Overall aviation policy and bringing back a national airport authority would be my favoured long-term ambition. That worked well, as it does with CIÉ, where there are three companies all under the CIÉ umbrella but working independently with some level of competitive tension. In the current climate, we must work with Dublin and Cork airports. It will take somebody like Mr. Ó Céidigh, who understands that relationship and sees the potential there, to do that. It goes back to what Deputy McNamara raised about the fifth freedom flights and potentially cargo flights. I welcome Mr. Ó Céidigh's approach to reaching out to Dublin Airport and having a collaborative environment rather than a competitive tension. That is the way to go.

What are the current passenger numbers for Shannon Airport? Does Mr. Ó Céidigh have an idea?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

The current passenger numbers are approximately 360,000. In 2020, the number was 352,000. It is hoped that for 2021, given that there are three months left to go, it will be in the region of 380,000 passengers.

You are looking at achieving a fourfold increase by 2024.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

That is what we are looking at. It is important to state that regardless of whether I am an executive chair or a non-executive chair, I am going to give it 100%.

We know that.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I saw what I was coming into. I was strongly encouraged by people for whom I have a lot of respect to consider going for the job. That had a huge influence on me and that is why I went for it. I knew what I was going into.

What has come out of this meeting is that apart from being an entrepreneur, Mr. Ó Céidigh also has a huge background in aviation. Shannon Airport is at a critical moment. Based on our deliberations and on what we are hearing, we collectively feel that there is a need for an executive chair role in Shannon Airport for a period. We will be writing to the Minister to say that we have met Mr. Ó Céidigh and are supportive of his appointment.

We will include that as something that should be considered, for a period of time, in view of the unique circumstances now impacting Shannon Airport. Mr. Ó Céidigh would be working with an excellent management team under Mary Considine, the CEO at Shannon Airport. We must get aeroplanes back in the air and work collaboratively to do that. Mr. Ó Céidigh will bring significant experience of the aviation sector to the non-executive role and add to the lift-off of Shannon Airport. That is key.

I call Deputy Cathal Crowe.

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was sitting in the same seat now occupied by Mr. Ó Céidigh just last week. I asked him about Mr. Ó Céidigh taking on an executive role. The suggestion was first made to me by some of the hoteliers in Clare. They see the appointment of Mr. Ó Céidigh as an enabler for the region. They asked me to put this question to the Minister for Transport. The transcript of the meeting is not live yet. The committee transcripts take about two weeks sometimes to come on stream. However, the Minister's response was negative. We have heard a doubling down on this proposal today and I again support it. We should go back to the Minister again with it.

I made this proposal last week. The Chair heard the Minister's response then. He came up with several reasons why this proposal should not be accepted. He stated that Ms Considine runs the airport from day to day as the chief executive and that Mr. Ó Céidigh would have a chairing role. That is fine. A bedding-in period is required, however, where Ms Considine and Mr. Ó Céidigh need to work in tandem to get us on a recovery trajectory. I double down on this proposal in that context. Others have also made the same proposal today, so let us go with that.

There are opportunities here. We have an infatuation with Ryanair, Aer Lingus and North American carriers and rightly so. Those are the carriers that bring large volumes of people into Ireland. Mr. Ó Céidigh could push other opportunities in addition, however, during his tenure. I refer to companies such as GainJet and other small private jet companies that fly into Shannon, some of which are based there as well. We must explore the opportunities presented by those flights. Some of those departures from Shannon originate in the Middle East and they go on to land in Washington D.C by night and important traffic is included in those flights. Enabling works are being undertaken by the Department to expand on those activities as well.

Recent months have seen much talk of the Air Corps. I do not want to go near the separate debate about search and rescue, SAR. What has been mentioned is the Air Corps moving away from the Pilatus propeller-driven aircraft it uses for pilot training and finally catching up with the rest of the world in using fixed-wing trainer jets. There are capacity limitations in Baldonnel, and if those trainer jets are adopted, we should pitch in for them. Lest anyone say that we are trying to unravel search and rescue, this is about the training of Air Corps pilots, which is a separate and distinct area. We should be pitching Shannon Airport as the location for such fixed-wing trainer jet capacity.

Locating a cargo hub at the airport has not been mentioned widely yet. I have mentioned it several times at this committee. Cargolux is a fantastic model where there is buy-in from the state. It is a cargo carrier with a majority of shares owned by the state. It goes all over the world. Luxembourg is tiny, just slightly larger than County Clare, and yet it has a dominant global position in international air capacity. Shannon Airport is well positioned in that regard. We have heard many things mentioned in the last week, including motorways to Cork, talks in the Government about a rail cargo facility at Limerick Junction, rail spurs to Shannon, motorways to Foynes and estuary capacity. All that lends itself to Mr. Ó Céidigh and the Shannon Group pitching the airport to the Government for something big to happen there. There was much talk between the Government and Amazon about having a facility in Shannon and the mid-west. With its long runway, Shannon can strongly position itself as a potential location for an air cargo facility.

We have talked about American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and other carriers. JetBlue has now begun transatlantic flights. The airline is flying in the UK twice a day. I would love Mr. Ó Céidigh to pitch to that airline. It is flying into Gatwick Airport and conscious of its budget regarding landing. Let us pitch to the company to touch down in Shannon, take on so many passengers and then go back. In time, then, perhaps we could lock the airline into a full Shannon service. For the moment, a quick touchdown in Shannon would enhance the airport's connectivity into America. Anyone who has been in an American airport will have seen that United Airlines and American Airlines dominate, but JetBlue also operates an immense network. I would love to see that pitch made. I ask Mr. Ó Céidigh to wrap up on some of those points.

Regarding the opportunities to fly east, as mentioned by Deputy Cathal Crowe, what are the opportunities with other airlines in that regard?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I have obviously not explored any of this. More generally, this meeting was powerful, supportive and had many good ideas and positive contributions. I thank members for that and I want this relationship to continue. This is not all about what is wrong. We can all talk about that aspect. The committee is considering how to make things better.

Deputy Crowe mentioned private jets. There are many private jets in Dublin and that is the main space for this type of business. In the UK, Luton Airport derives significant income from private jet flights. I do not know how strong that business could be in Shannon. I do not know what it is like now. It is something I will need to find out. Regarding the Air Corps, the single-engine Pilatus is a Swiss aircraft and is a good aeroplane. Pluses and minuses are associated with such single-engine aeroplanes. If that single engine fails in such an aircraft, you would need to be a good swimmer. I will put it like that. The Pilatus aircraft, however, has a very good safety record.

Senator Conway mentioned training earlier as well. What the members are saying, as I see it, is that it could be possible to support and add another angle for a market concerning training for the Air Corps. That is interesting. I made a note of it. Turning to JetBlue transatlantic flights, funnily enough my son, another Cathal, was in Chicago and he phoned me to tell me that I should get in touch with JetBlue. It would be an interesting group to get into Shannon. It is on the radar from my personal perspective. All the airline can do is say, "No".

Beg, borrow or steal, it would be amazing to get JetBlue into Shannon. It would offer us fantastic possibilities.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

The founder of JetBlue was a man called David Neeleman, out of Salt Lake City. He developed software called Navitaire. In my days in Aer Arann we used that software, although we could barely afford it. It was the same software that Ryanair used back in the day for online booking. I met Mr. Neeleman a few times, but not for a good few years. now. We can rekindle those meetings.

There is an existing connection.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Moving on to cargo, and I am talking at arm's length here, that was tried in Shannon before. It was seriously considered. It seemed to be a good idea, but I do not know where that stands now. I will need to check that out, and I apologise for not being able to give a fuller answer.

I was there on Friday and I bumped into Mr. Jim Gavin, assistant director of the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, a Clare man, if he does not mind me calling him that, and the manager of the Dublin football team. He is proud of his family coming from Clare. One area that the IAA is focused on, and which is becoming a bigger focus in Shannon, is that of drones and the exploration of what they can do. There is huge potential. I refer to Shannon Airport and the IAA, the regulator, working hand in glove and becoming a European leader in the area of drone technology and drone safety. I have been talking to representatives of the IAA about that for a couple of years and it is interested in that space. I am keen to promote that further in Shannon and to work closely with the regulator to develop that technology. It is a big part of the future of transport, aviation and movement.

I thank Mr. Ó Céidigh.

I thank Mr. Ó Céidigh.

I call Senator Buttimer.

My monitor might go because it is saying that the time for the meeting has nearly expired. I left the room to give the members a chance to stay in there. I thank Mr. Ó Céidigh for being here. It is incumbent on us to reflect on the discourse we had this morning.

While it has been an engagement with the chair designate, as we have seen Mr. Ó Céidigh brings more than just that title; he brings an insight and experience. I hope the committee can develop some of the themes we have discussed this morning.

I do not want to engage in Cork versus Shannon or a Cork, Dublin and Shannon discourse because today is about Mr. Ó Céidigh. He has been a breath of fresh air, the board is in capable hands with him and the Shannon Group is lucky to have him as its chair designate. He will be a proactive chair and I wish him well and I hope that arising from today we can take the points that have been raised and develop them as a committee as part of our work programme. Beir bua a Phádraig.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir.

I thank Mr. Ó Céidigh for his attendance. We all forget how valuable pre-clearance is as an asset. I presume that even those private jets can use it if they are coming in at all hours. They cannot do that in Luton or in loads of other places. It is important to know that one has pre-clearance when one lands in America. A flight could be delayed and it happened to me one time; we were supposed to be going to Chicago and the runway there was covered in snow so we were in Milwaukee for four hours. I got back to Chicago and made my flight connection by about ten minutes but I had a four-hour gap. If I did not have pre-clearance I never would have made that flight because one is walking into the airport as a domestic passenger. Maybe we do not sell that enough from the point of view of Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport but we are talking about Shannon Airport today.

The fact that Mr. Ó Céidigh knows so much about Dublin Airport is a good benefit. Having had his airline based there and having worked there means he knows that side of it. We have talked a lot about inbound tourism, in respect of people coming into the country and Shannon Airport creating tourist business. Equally there is the home-grown market of 30 million to 31 million passengers who have historically flown out of Dublin Airport. We are talking about figures of 400,000 passengers per year. That was four days of Dublin Airport traffic at the height of the boom; it was doing 100,000 passengers per day. Dublin Airport does not need to fear Shannon Airport. If Shannon Airport went to full capacity in the morning, it would still only be 4 million passengers or so. It will not suck 31 million passengers away from Dublin Airport; it is a tiny redistribution. I will be and I am pro-Dublin Airport but that should not be at Shannon Airport's expense and it does not have to be.

This is not a reflection on any individual but in the past ten years, since 2011, every single Minister with responsibility for transport at Cabinet level has been based in Dublin. The last non-Dublin based Minister responsible for transport at Cabinet was Noel Dempsey. We had Deputies Varadkar and Donohoe, Shane Ross and Deputy Eamon Ryan. That is not a bad thing but it shows that we all focus on our areas more than on other areas. We all know we have to mind our bases and maybe Shannon Airport has suffered a little bit from that.

I am around long enough to remember when Séamus Brennan was the Minister talking about and implementing the break-up of the airport. At the time Shannon Airport was probably crying out for that because it felt that Dublin Airport kept saying "No" to anything it wanted to do and that if it was independent, it could then do things. That has not worked out the way people might have thought but at the time - and I remember the discussions about it - it was said that Shannon Airport was being squashed by Dublin Airport, that it would not let Shannon Airport do what it wanted and that Dublin Airport wanted everything for itself. Shannon Airport was given the wings to do its own thing and lots of things have happened in the meantime, including Covid.

It is important that Shannon Airport and Cork Airport work. That is for everybody's benefit, not just for those regions. It is also beneficial to people in the Dublin region. I wish Mr. Ó Céidigh the best and I look forward to going to see Shannon Airport and the wider Shannon zone whenever that is possible. Mr. Ó Céidigh can be assured of my support and he will have the support of all the committee. As for the question of an executive chairman versus a non-executive chairman, whatever needs to be done in order to make Shannon Airport the best should be done. I do not want to undermine the chief executive and nobody wants to do that but equally, Mr. Ó Céidigh brings a lot of skills to the position and the argument that he would be more hands-on than a normal chairperson for a period has a lot of merit to it and could be examined further.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I thank the Senator for his support.

I want to ask about a matter that was not touched on. Limerick Chamber did a report in conjunction with Copenhagen Economics and my colleagues would be familiar with it. One of the things it put forward was getting a link to Frankfurt Airport and this was pre-Covid. How important would that link be? As there is a link to Heathrow Airport, what would a link to the likes of Frankfurt Airport bring to an airport like Shannon Airport and the region?

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Frankfurt Airport is a significant international and European airport. It would give options for onward flights, some of which we have in Heathrow Airport and some of which we do not have. It is a direct link into Germany, which is a hugely important economy and there are lots of German companies in Ireland, including in the wider Shannon area so such a link would support and strengthen those companies. In addition to point-to-point connection, there also is connectivity out of Frankfurt Airport which is regarded as the premier international airport in Germany. Heathrow Airport provides some of that connectivity, as it goes west and east, but Frankfurt is a huge hub. When I was a Senator a couple of years ago I went to Frankfurt on my own bat because I am passionate about SMEs. Frankfurt has the largest incubation hub in Germany; it has something like 350 start-up businesses and companies. I had a meeting with its CEO and the hub was interested at that stage in working with innovation hubs in Ireland and we could have created a win-win situation out of that. We could do a lot of collaborative learning from that as well so a connection to Frankfurt would not just be purely airport-related.

Heathrow Airport, Boston Logan International Airport and New York John F. Kennedy International Airport are key strategic airports.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

They are.

That is the business that needs to be taken care of but when Mr. Ó Céidigh gets an opportunity he might read the Copenhagen Economics report on Frankfurt Airport, which we will send to him.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Please do so.

This has been an illuminating meeting. Mr. Ó Céidigh can see that there is cross-party, cross-community and stakeholder support for his appointment. Shannon Airport is at a critical juncture.

In normal cases chairpersons of boards are non-executive. That is the standard model and it is a good model but from what we have heard today, Mr. Ó Céidigh can bring something with an executive role. I take on board Mr. Ó Céidigh's point that regardless of whether it is an executive or a non-executive role, he will do his best and we welcome that. Mr. Ó Céidigh can bring a synergy to the Shannon management and board as an executive chair for a period of time because of his background and contacts in aviation.

Mr. Ó Céidigh has been chair designate for little over a week and we wanted him to come before the committee quickly so that he could hit the ground running as fast as possible. We will write to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, today on foot of this meeting to say we have met Mr. Ó Céidigh, that we had an engaging meeting and that we are supportive of his appointment. We will also say that in the circumstances that pertain with Shannon Airport, the Government needs to give serious consideration to making Mr. Ó Céidigh's role an executive chair role for one year to 18 months because of the synergies the airport needs to bring its passenger numbers back fourfold from 360,000 to 1.7 million in 2024. The target would be between 2.5 million and 3 million passengers by 2027, which goes without saying.

We look forward to our Oireachtas group in the mid-west, chaired by Deputy Carey, meeting up with Mr. Ó Céidigh as soon as possible and Deputy Carey will issue that invite. Furthermore, we will write to the Taoiseach and the Government to seek a meeting at the airport. This shows intent and when we write to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, we will be stating that as a group. I am sure the committee will agree with Mr. Ó Céidigh's request and the request we have made that there should be zero landing or airport charges for a period of three years until 2024 and until Shannon Airport gets back to some sort of level footing. The Government is committed to putting money in and that should be expedited as quickly as possible.

There must be further discussions with the Shannon Group and with both Mr. Ó Céidigh as chair and Ms Mary Considine as CEO as well as the others on the management team. That is the immediate thing. We must see planes in the air. We have a window of time now before Cork Airport opens. We must ensure Heathrow routes continue at Shannon but more particularly that we get three daily flights, at morning, daytime and evening and that we get Aer Lingus to get the transatlantic flights running as quickly as possible. I refer to Aer Lingus's routes to JFK Airport and Boston and as well as those of other airlines as well. That is something we feel very strongly about.

Mr. Ó Céidigh's point on the task force and the new aviation strategy is something we will very much be taking up with the Government and the Minister. We will have Mr. Ó Céidigh back in before us on that matter again.

I wish Mr. Ó Céidigh well. This is a key appointment for Shannon, for the entire western seaboard and for Ireland Inc. overall. Collectively as a committee we look forward to working with Mr. Ó Céidigh and his further engagement with us. I have no doubt we will see him back here shortly. Bon voyage.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I thank everybody on the committee. I very much appreciate the support. One other point is the permanent inclusion of Shannon in the State's regional airport programme.

Yes. We will include that.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

I thank the Chairman.

We will include those two asks when we are writing. That is obviously a more permanent ask but to get planes in the air-----

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Is the immediate one.

-----you need zero landing and airport charges for that critical three-year period up to 2024. That will be a key ask.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Absolutely.

That is something we would like the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to very much take on board. Shannon must be front and centre in aviation policy. Having the Cabinet coming down will set that marker. The Shannon Group will issue the invite as well. There is an urgency to the Government concluding discussions with Aer Lingus in particular, but also other airlines. The three strategic routes we are looking at are Aer Lingus routes. Ryanair should not be forgotten here. It does phenomenal flights in and out of Shannon and they are huge.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Absolutely.

Any discussions that are taking place should be concluded with speed and the outcome of those should be zero landing and airport charges for strategic routes out of Shannon, such as Heathrow, Boston and New York. On Heathrow, that must involve providing three daily flights in the morning, daytime and evening. That is key, as is the restoration by Aer Lingus of the transatlantic flights to Boston, New York and so on.

Thank you very much Ó Céidigh. We wish you well.

Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh

Thanks everybody. Thanks for your support.

I formally thank Mr. Ó Céidigh for attending today to engage with the committee. Obviously we wish him well in his new role.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.44 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 October 2021.