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Knock Airport needs Government support – now

Comment & Opinion

FUTURE UNCERTAIN Passenger numbers have plummeted at Ireland West Airport Knock.  Pic: Oisín McGovern

Figures released in the past week about the fall in business at Knock Airport are shocking.
We should not be surprised given that we are in the midst of a global pandemic with aviation severely affected, but it is only when you see the hard, cold numbers in print that you realise just how much of an impact 2020 has had on Ireland West Airport – one of the jewels in the crown in the west of Ireland.
The airport suffered an 88 percent decline in passenger numbers in July and August 2020 compared to the corresponding period in 2019.
Of course they were closed completely for all of June, May, April and part of March.
Their projected passenger numbers for the full year are just 170,000, a staggering fall of 78 percent from 2019. Were it not for January and February, the fall would be much worse. Knock had quarter one figures of 107,000. They will have less than that for the remaining nine months of the year.
Last year was their most successful year ever in terms of numbers with 807,000 passengers passing through Knock.
Management at the airport had worked remorselessly to grow their passenger numbers in recent years. They experienced year on year growth with 770,000 in 2018 and 750,000 in 2017.
They passed the 250,000 mark in 2002 and passed 100,000 passenger numbers as far back as 1988. Now, as a result of Covid-19, they’ve been catapulted back to numbers far too similar to their 1988 figures.
The fear for airports such as Knock and Shannon is that a return to normality will not be instant.
While many in the hospitality industry in Ireland benefitted from a surge in business in July and August, recovery will be a much slower burner for aviation. It is generally forecast that it will be 2024 before the industry returns to 2019 levels.
So there is no doubt that there is a need for support from Government to stop such vital regional infrastructures as Knock Airport from going to the wall.
You would do well to find anyone in the west of Ireland who would say Knock is not an invaluable resource for the region. From day one, it was never showered with love from the State. Indeed, were it not for the defiant attitude of Monsignor James Horan, it’s hard to imagine Knock being in existence at all.
But it is and, over time, up until this year, it has thrived.

Connacht call
Now, with Knock facing an entirely unforeseen crisis, business groups in the region have come together to fight on their behalf.
Over 1,000 businesses in Mayo, Galway and Sligo are behind a collaborative call for action for Knock.  
As Kenneth Deery, CEO of Galway Chamber, said in our lead story last week, this is not about propping up an ailing operation that’s continuously draining the public purse strings dry.
“Knock had 807,000 passengers last year, it was their best year. It is a viable airport; this is a really important airport. This is not about putting in pop-up grants to keep a white elephant alive. This is a successful, viable airport that has been impacted because of Covid and continuing government restrictions that are out of kilter with the rest of Europe,” said the Achill native.  
Indeed, it could be strongly argued that Knock has hardly benefitted at all when compared to Shannon, as its former chairman Liam Scollan said in these pages in 2013, when criticising a ‘gravy train to Shannon’.
“The subvention of its (Shannon) losses indirectly costs the taxpayer around €6 per passenger per year, by comparison with IWAK, where the subvention of its losses is 87 cent per passenger. IWAK is nine times more efficient in terms of cost,” he said.
“One wonders what might have been achieved if the airport received only a fraction of the money that successive governments have ploughed into Shannon and Dublin airports over the last 30 years,” said Charlestown’s Cllr Gerry Murray in 2013.
So let’s not fall for any bunkum that Knock is a burden.
Therefore with strict travel restrictions in place, the Government needs to put in place a suite of supports to keep regional airports afloat. Also, airlines need to be incentivised, or told, to maintain regional routes.
It is a public health emergency and the short-term impacts are clear. How great the long-term impacts might be will depend hugely on what actions the government take.
During our What’s Best for the West series, Knock frequently shone like a beacon as a  perfect example of differing attitudes towards infrastructural development in the west. Few in government in the early ’80s thought it was a good idea, and that attitude has persisted in the years since.
Yet, at local level, it is treasured as an invaluable resource for the region. It’s within 90 minutes drive of 12 counties and, arguably, more still with better road networks.
A 2019 Ernst and Young study revealed that Knock Airport provides considerable economic benefits for the northern and western region with tourism spending by passengers generating €217 million and supporting 3,177 jobs in the wider region.
When its benefits to the region are so clear, the fact it has rarely been bestowed with love by the State is telling.
If the Government is serious about balanced regional development – never more important than post Covid – then the way in which it addresses the issues surrounding regional airports like Knock will be instructive.