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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

'Move on' Donaldson tells Shannon protesters

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Jeffrey Donaldson has hit out at local-interest groups who have criticised Aer Lingus's decision to re-route flights to London Heathrow from Shannon and to launch them from Belfast International Aldergrove airport.

Urging them to move on, the DUP MP said: "There is an irony here. Some people are shouting very loudly about a united Ireland but when it starts to hit them in the pocket the enthusiasm evaporates very quickly."

An Aer Lingus source said the decision to withdraw from Ireland's third-largest airport would not be reversed, despite criticism from TDs in the west of Ireland and opposition parties.

Donaldson dismissed their fears. "Aldergrove lost its Heathrow connection almost ten years ago and it didn't sink the airport, he said. "Aldergrove got up off its feet, attracted more airlines and expanded its capacity way beyond anything it had before. Shannon is capable of doing the same. They already have flights to the three other London airports."

Donaldson predicted a further increase of investment in the north by companies in the republic. The Bank of Ireland recently located it hedge-fund operations in Belfast and Dublin/Belfast road links have been improved with Irish government assistance.

"We are seeing the creation of a Dublin/Belfast economic corridor with my Lagan Valley constituency in the middle of it," Donaldson said. "Now that we have settled the constitutional issue there is no problem in developing these economic links, and I see considerable potential for them."

Donaldson's assessment is supported by Aer Lingus. "Shannon needs to look to the future rather than trying to revisit the past," a company source said.

The source compared the loss of the Heathrow slots to closing one lane of a three-lane highway.

"The airport has about 50-60 flights a week to Dublin, Manchester and Gatwick, and there are also flights to Stansted and Luton."

David Burnside, a former Northern Ireland MP and British Airways executive, was more pointed. "Shannon is a hangover from another age. If you were building an airport today, you wouldn't build it at Shannon," he said.

"Aer Lingus has got past the stage of being an old state carrier, it is a well-run operation. It is clear this move was taken on sound commercial grounds, not because of grants or sweeteners."

Aer Lingus will receive a grant of between £300,000 and £400,000 over three years to help promote the new routes. This money is available in most UK airports outside the Greater London area. The airline will get a further contribution from Invest Northern Ireland to the cost of training technical staff.

The decisive factor in the decision is projected passenger growth. With 5m passengers a year Belfast International Aldergrove is already the second-biggest airport on the island after Dublin. Shannon has 3.7m passengers a year but many of these are transit passengers.

"In Shannon we have 300,000-350,000 passengers and that is unlikely to grow significantly in the foreseeable future," the Aer Lingus source said. "There are also legacy cost structures that don't work from a commercial perspective.

"In Belfast you have effectively a net 650,000-700,000 customers and the ability to create a new hub with a projected 1m passengers. Other businesses may have challenges as a consequence of this but Aer Lingus can only deal with the challenges within its own business."

August 17, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on August 12, 2007.