Shannon Airport is justly famous for introducing the world to the concept of duty free airport shopping, the foundations of which were laid down in 1947 under the Shannon Free Airport Authority legislation of the time. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find an airport anywhere that does not have a duty free section. Airport authorities around the world have leaped on the idea as both a revenue generator for their airports and a valued benefit for passengers. That game-changing ‘first’, however, as Shannon Managing Director Mary Considine points out, is only one of a number of firsts for the airport.
A second innovation, vitally important for the growth and prosperity of both commercial and business aviation at Shannon, is pre-clearance for US border and customs. This goes back to Shannon’s status, from its early days onwards, as a transit airport en route between the US and Europe. As Considine explains, Shannon was the original stopover airport on the transatlantic route and held that status from its opening in 1955 through to the introduction of Open Skies in April 2008.
“Shannon is unique in that even though we have a small catchment area as an airport, absolutely tiny by comparison with, say, Heathrow, or Charles de Gaulle, our status as a transit airport and the full customs and border pre-clearance arrangement have created a tremendous and sustained business for the airport,” she observes.
Perhaps the central attraction for both commercial carriers and general aviation flowing from pre-clearance is that their aircraft are then free to fly into some 220 domestic airports in the US, instead of having to go through the major international airports like John F. Kennedy. At a stroke this enables commercial carriers in particular to avoid the high fees associated with landing at mainstream international airports, while passengers are able to go directly to baggage reclaim and on out the airport, saving them long queues through US security and customs.
Winning business from the large commercial airlines will always be Shannon’s number one revenue earner, but business aviation has a treasured role in the airport’s strategy to diversify its revenue stream.
“The way we look at it, there is no silver bullet for Shannon as far as a winning business strategy is concerned. We need to deploy a multi-faceted approach. We are on the west coast of Ireland in an area that is certainly not densely populated, so commercial passenger traffic through our terminal by itself will never be enough to support the airport. Whilst terminal growth remains our core focus, because of our history and the availability of pre-clearance, the transit and business aviation markets are also hugely important to us”, she says.
Shannon Airport’s future growth plans received a major boost on 31 December 2012 when the government agreed to separate Shannon from the Dublin Airport Authority’s remit. Until then, Shannon had been part of the trio of airports making up the DAA, the other two being Dublin Airport and Cork Airport. Shannon is now the Shannon Airport Authority and it is set to merge with the Shannon Development Company, with a mission to further develop Shannon as an international aviation services centre. As Considine points out, the merged entity will have no shortage of land to offer to incoming companies. Shannon itself has a very significant land bank of over 2,000 acres, while the SDA has 189 acres, forming the Shannon Free Zone. The idea is to build on the cluster of aerospace companies that already exist on the site.
There are almost 2,000 staff at Shannon employed in aviation-related companies on the site, excluding the airport’s own terminal staff. Lufthansa Technik, for instance, have one of their eight global centres of excellence located at Shannon. Transaero Airlines, the second largest Russian carrier, has a significant MRO operation at Shannon and has just taken over the Aer Lingus hangar, where they plan to do Boeing 777 maintenance work. EirTech specialises in cabin refurbishments and repaints for commercial airlines while the Airport is also home to some of the world’s leading aircraft financing and leasing companies.
Shannon Airport and Ireland’s role in playing host to legends in the aircraft leasing business is a story in its own right. GPA, or Guinness Peat Aviation, became the world’s largest commercial aircraft lessor in the 1980s before a failed floatation sent it into administration in the early 1990s. General Electric subsidiary GECAS (GE Capital Aviation Services) took over the operational management of GPA’s fleet and has a major operation in Shannon. “Ireland has over 30 commercial aircraft leasing companies with GECAS being the largest in the world. AerCap, the third-largest, is headquartered in the Netherlands, with offices here at Shannon,” Considine says. With the airport already having companies with such a spread of skill sets, the idea is to bring everything together to create a centre of excellence at Shannon for the aviation sector, both commercial and business. The next piece to be added to the jigsaw will be pilot training, and Considine says that discussions are already underway with two local universities, the University of Limerick and the Limerick Institute of Technology, to develop fully-fledged pilot training facilities located at the Shannon Airport complex.