Recent years have been hard going at Shannon, but it hopes to suceed by offering services that are unique in Europe
Ireland’s exposure to the recession and the Eurozone crisis has seen inward investment slow, and local entrepreneurs getting their fingers burned. Yet despite the problems, general aviation traffic at Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland grew by 3% in 2011 after a 7% increase the year before.
The property developers who were cashing in during the boom years were based mainly on the other side of the country around Dublin, but Joe Buckley, cargo and technical traffic manager at Shannon, says horse breeders and, more recently, biotech companies are more strongly represented in the south and west.
Mike Ryan, general manager Ireland at FBO Signature Flight Support, confirms that the horse racing industry remains prominent in this region. Foreign owners regularly fly in to visit their trainers, while the more successful local owners and breeders charter their aircraft out commercially as well as using them personally.
Signature, with bases at both Shannon and Dublin, offered hangarage to five corporate jets in Shannon at the peak of the market. “Only one of those owners survives, but we diversified and now work to meet the requirements of leasing companies and the military, for example,” Ryan says. “We purchased our own fuel truck three years ago and fuel sales are now an important part of what we do.”
Dublin is a similar sized but more clearly defined market, Ryan says. Although the general aviation market there has suffered, multinational manufacturers and financial services companies still need to move executives in and out of Dublin. The customer base is bigger, there are more locally based aircraft and the charter market is livelier thanks to the city’s sporting and concert venues.
For its part, Shannon, which has no curfews or slot restrictions, offers benefits as a tech stop for transatlantic flights but Buckley admits: “We’ve been dependent on the fact that aircraft didn’t have such a great range in the past.”
The airport is trying to carve out a new niche and set itself up in 2010 as the only airport in Europe at which passengers on private aircraft can pre-clear US immigration. One or two flights a week, mainly from the Middle East, Turkey, Russia and eastern Europe, make use of the facility, a lower take-up than Buckley had hoped. “We’ve got to make people aware of what exists here, but it’s a question of whether the time and cost of diverting is worth it,” he says.
Frank Moloney, who heads up the new JetEx Shannon FBO, believes pre-clearance is a useful time-saver for operators flying from Moscow to New York. “You only need 20 or 30 minutes for paperwork on touchdown, but it’s so much easier if it’s all pre-done,” he says. “And Teterboro is not the only international point of entry, as previously domestic airports have opened up.”
Moloney says Shannon was taking 90 minutes to process passengers in the beginning but has now streamlined this to 30 or 40 minutes, which can be accomplished while the aircraft is refuelling.
A charter operator at Shannon for 30 years, latterly as CEO of Westair, Moloney decided in 2008 to focus on management and logistics services. “I could see the downturn looming and we were lucky to exit the charter market when we did,” he confesses.
Last October, JetEx Flight Support entered into a joint venture with Westair and Moloney says the enhanced operation is already delivering new traffic to Shannon. “We’re not in the business of swapping chairs on the Titanic,” he says. “We expected the first few months would be slow burn for us, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised and saw 90 movements in our first quarter. G550s and Global Expresses may be able to go direct from the Middle East to the US, but smaller aircraft need the stop and we’re a realistic alternative to Prestwick [Scotland].
“We had never marketed our FBO – it was previously there to service our own fleet. But JetEx was looking to expand and it gave us a one-stop shop – overflight permits, flight planning and so on. We wanted to provide a bespoke VIP-level service, which lots of people promise but can’t deliver.”
JetEx Shannon offers competitive fuel leveraged on the back of the company’s global fuel buying activity. “We’re the only true FBO here with airside and landside lounges hangars, fuel and part 151 maintenance services – it’s unmatched in Ireland,” Moloney says.
The maintenance facility has Gulfstream, Hawker Beechcraft, Bombardier, Challenger 605 and Learjet approvals. “We can get a plane underway in minutes. We can provide an engineer on the ramp at every turnaround, which makes us unique in the UK and Ireland. Technical support issues that arise in flight can often be dealt with without a large parts store.
“We’ve shown there is an opportunity to grow business in a recession when you fully understand the mindset of operators and I’m quietly proud about it. We will be adding to our facilities in the next couple of years,” Moloney concludes.