Irish regional airline Aer Arann underscored its willingness to challenge air transport convention over the summer when it opened the first direct air link between Belfast and Dublin in eight years. But a little more than two months later, economic pragmatism trumped any political or symbolic value the new route might have carried, when CEO Padraig O’Ceidigh ended the experiment almost as abruptly as it began.
Since Northern Ireland in recent years lost many links to long-haul routes previously available through major European hubs, the renewed service to the Republic of Ireland not only opened the door to Aer Arann’s internal domestic network; it also provided connections to international operations from Dublin. Given the historic tensions between the two cities, the new service assumed a high political profile.
But in late August, Aer Arann axed the program following poor results. Dublin-Belfast services opened in mid-June but had not drawn the expected traffic, according to Aer Arann officials. Aer Arann acknowledged that its research before launching the service took no account of significant factors that inhibited passenger loads on the route. At the time, the privately owned airline expected to pass judgment on the service perhaps by late September, possibly putting off a final decision until the end of the year to allow traffic to “mature.”
Earlier this year a study on cross-border transport by InterTradeIreland (the business-development body set up under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement) indicated a potential for “in the region of 300,000 passengers per annum on the route,” said Aer Arann commercial manager Jennifer Mooney. The figure represents just 10 percent of the 3 million passengers (split 2:1 between bus and train services) that O’Ceidigh said use surface transport each year.
The airline believed that actual passenger numbers would equate to little more than a tenth of the report’s figure–only about 1 percent of the potential demand estimated for InterTradeIreland by Professor Austin Smyth of Dublin’s National Institute for Transport and Logistics. Mooney told AIN, “We expect to carry 16,000 during the latter half of 2003 and 33,000 for 2004.” That forecast represented a tightening of the 40,000 annual travelers suggested by O’Ceidigh when Aer Arann began the operation six weeks earlier. Initially, business travelers accounted for 70 percent of the route’s traffic.
According to Mooney, improvements to the motorway between the two cities and Aer Arann’s limited flight schedule, which didn’t allow a full day’s business in Dublin for Belfast-originating traffic, accounted for most of the problem. “Unfortunately, the schedule did not afford us the possibility of running the flight any later,” she said. After the morning Dublin-Belfast-Dublin round trip, the assigned aircraft plied the Dublin-Glasgow Prestwick (via Isle of Man) route before flying the day’s second cross-border services in the late afternoon.
While Mooney cited factors beyond Aer Arann’s direct control, O’Ceidigh delved deeper, confessing that Aer Arann neglected to account properly for changes in summer traffic patterns. He said the improved road has cut travel times by as much as 30 minutes, allowing for a drive of just 1 hour 45 minutes. To compete, Aer Arann offered fares I£5 lower than the I£55 ($75) tariff for train service between the two cities.
The Aer Arann chief executive explained the situation honestly: “We did not do our homework. [Apart from the improved road connections] the other thing we didn’t get accurate was that very few people from the south travel to the north in summer. Also, inter-governmental activity decreases significantly, requiring less travel.”
But at the time O’Ceidigh thought that circumstance could work in his favor if it meant that loads would increase after the summer holiday period, just when Aer Arann would have to judge the route’s future. O’Ceidigh evidently decided not to wait, and cut his losses–a decision perhaps in the best interest of Aer Arann, but one that cannot bode well for the competitive environment at Belfast International.
Not only did the Irish capital offer connections with Aer Arann’s six domestic routes and one international service; it also allowed for better interlining, especially since many other European cities no longer have connecting service to Belfast. For example, in the past, long-haul passengers from Northern Ireland to the U.S. could go via London; two years ago, almost 90 percent flew by way of UK mainland airports and nearly 33 percent of all Belfast-London Heathrow passengers made onward connections. But since late 2001 British Airways has dropped its shuttle service on the route, blaming 9/11 and subsequently re-designating its London slots for higher-yielding flights to the Caribbean.
Also, Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus abandoned its Belfast-Shannon flight linking Northern Ireland traffic to its New York service. Belfast also lost its Brussels connection following the collapse of Sabena, and British Midland’s move last year from Belfast International to Belfast City Airport further reduced choice because the latter’s noise curfew meant fewer Heathrow connections.