Getting knocked down but getting up again


RECOVERY Ireland West Airport CEO Joe Gilmore says the post-Covid recovery at the airport has been very satisfying.

Ireland West Airport at Knock has bounced back strongly from Covid collapse

Edwin McGreal

It was this day last year that then Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced that the majority of remaining Covid-19 restrictions were going to end and it turned out to be a pivotal day for Ireland West Airport at Knock.
CEO Joe Gilmore and his team had endured three closures during Covid and after a record year of passenger numbers in 2019, they watched the year on year growth of the airport from 1986 onwards crash as Covid grounded them.
From 807,000 passengers in 2019, they had only a fraction of that in 2020, when just 142,000 passengers used the airport.
In 2021 there was only a slight increase, to 174,000 so it is little wonder management at the airport were fearful for the future post-Covid.
But despite Covid restrictions being in place at the start of the year, 2022 went down as a very successful year, with Knock welcoming 722,000 passengers, it’s fifth highest ever total and 90 percent of the 2019 numbers.
What’s more, this year, with all restrictions gone, the airport is on course for a record year.
Based on the data before them, Knock are hoping to see 850,000 passengers this year.
This time last year, Joe Gilmore would have thought such a target would be pie in the sky.
“Nobody foresaw on February 21, when the restrictions were lifted, the massive increase in bookings that airlines experienced. Anecdotally the airlines told us they had their strongest period of bookings for the six weeks after restrictions were lifted,” Mr Gilmore told The Mayo News.
So they entered effectively a level of demand from April onwards usually only reserved for the height of summer. They were delighted to see such a quick and strong recovery.
“My concern during Covid was would airlines be in a position to get back to the way they were and would smaller airports like us suffer. So the post-Covid recovery has given me personally huge satisfaction. Seeing the strength of the recovery, seeing the drive back amongst staff and seeing the enjoyment and the pleasure customers get out of using the airport,” said Joe Gilmore.
He’s especially thankful for the support of the Government and their local authority partners during Covid, the loyalty of staff and the ongoing support of airline partners Ryanair and Aer Lingus. Ninety percent of staff were laid off at one stage during Covid but now the airport is booming again, not just in terms of flights but key commercial aspects such as retail, catering, car parking and duty free sales. Commercial income has helped to offset many of the rising costs any business is facing currently.

The million mark
The strength of the recovery means that a magic number is fast coming into view. It has been a long-held target of the airport to surpass the million annual passengers mark and it’s within touching distance.
“Our objective is to get to the million passengers and beyond as soon as we can. We’ve a target in our own business plans of getting to a million by 2027. We may get there sooner but, again, in this business due to the cyclical nature of aviation, while you can plan for five years you can never really look past the next 12 months.
“Our primary focus here as an airport is the safety and security of passengers and the level of service here and the rest usually happens. You manage your cost base, you make sure passengers have a good experience and hopefully you end up getting more business and more routes from that.
“The second aspect would be try to expand our route network. We’ve a good suite of routes already to the UK, we’d like to add one or two more in the UK. We’ve lost Gatwick as a result of Heathrow coming in. That would be in our plans to try to replace Gatwick over the coming 12-18 months. London is four or five distinct markets in its own right.
“In Europe we fly to Cologne in Germany, Milan in Italy and we’ve all the suite of Spanish and Portuguese routes. We’ve the Canaries back in. We’d like to add services into the French market and more German and Italian services. All of these are down to commercial viability.
“The final one and it has been an aspiration here and that’s the US. That’s probably more of a medium term goal. The recovery in aviation was more pronounced in short and medium haul flights. The European market rebounded strongly. Transatlantic flights are experiencing a more challenging recovery,” he said.
They are currently working on various upgrade projects at the airport across the next five years which will see an outlay of €30 million. Included in that is a substantial electricity upgrade and upgrades to the airport’s fire service, which is a service which has, thankfully, required very little use but is a necessary cost. Fire crew at the airport work in other sectors such as security, ready to be on call if any incidents occur.

Covid itself is an example of how vulnerable the aviation sector can be to the unexpected and Joe Gilmore is keenly aware of this when making predictions.
“The one thing Covid has taught us and the one thing the business teaches you is you can never really fully relax. There’s always some crisis around the corner,” he said.
One issue coming down the line that should not catch people off guard is climate concerns. The airport are targeting reducing their own carbon footprint by 50 percent before 2030 and net zero by 2050.
That only relates to the airport building itself, rather than the airlines, where the vast portion of carbon footprint from aviation comes. Joe Gilmore is acutely aware though of the impact concerns around the high carbon footprint aviation fuel can have on the whole sector.
“It’s a major challenge but there’s a lot of work being done on sustainable aviation fuels. Ryanair have significant research and development programmes in place looking at alternative fuels and they’re very conscious they have to take action on that side. There’s other areas with routing of aircrafts where a more efficiently routed aircraft could save 10-15 percent in aviation fuel.
“It will dictate the future of regional connectivity across Europe in particular. Governments are under serious pressure to address the climate issue. The reality is the cost of air travel will only increase, as much as I don’t like to say it. That’s why we’re lobbying with a regional airports’ group. We’re trying to highlight the fact that allowances need to be made for regional connectivity in terms of connectivity between major hubs and have some type of scaling system there that we’re not unduly overly impacted,” he said.