Donegal Airport, 25 years on

Donegal Airport, 25 years on

Donegal Airport, 25 years on

By Carolyn Farrar@

Twenty-five years ago this week, what had been a grassy airstrip on reclaimed land in west Donegal became Donegal Airport, when a nine-seat aeroplane was used to launch a regularly scheduled service to Glasgow.

Back then, a pre-fab served as the terminal, and another was perched on top to hold the air traffic controller; the existing terminal, air traffic control tower and hangar came in the 1990s.

Today, Donegal Airport at Carrickfinn is carrying out a 2.3 million euro capital project that when finished will see a new, strengthened overlay along the nearly 1,500-metre-long runway, as well as new runway lighting and other safety measures.

"Without it, we would have difficulty going forward," said Anne Bonner, managing director of Donegal Airport.

The airport also learned recently that it has been granted the Public Service Obligation (PSO) that will enable them to sign another three-year contract with Aer Arann to continue twice daily flights to Dublin. The government subsidies are intended to assist carriers with routes that would not be economically viable otherwise. The regional carrier also provides a twice-weekly return flight between Donegal and Glasgow this time of year, though that doubles in the summer.

Pat "the Cope" Gallagher, MEP, while expressing disappointment in the Department of Transport's decision to discontinue PSO funds to airports at Sligo, Knock, Galway and Derry, said the subvention was crucial to Donegal.

"I have stated at all times that Donegal Airport could not continue commercially without PSO funding," he said.

Mr. Gallagher also called the airport "vital to the economic, tourism, social and cultural life of the region."

In an interview with the Donegal Democrat, Anne Bonner acknowledged that despite the activity going on at the moment, it has not been an easy year for Donegal Airport.

"We've had a challenging year, really," she said. The Dublin flight sees year-on-year growth, she said, but 2010 was also the year that air traffic in Ireland and around Europe was seriously disrupted by two prolonged periods of winter freeze and the clouds of volcanic ash that Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano belched into the skies after its April eruption.

The numbers tell their own story: One hundred and two flights were cancelled at Donegal Airport in 2010. Fourteen flights were cancelled in 2009. In 2008, the airport's busiest year, 65,000 passengers came though. Last year Donegal Airport served almost 47,000 passengers.

"Unfortunately we had volcanic ash at Easter time, when the operation is at peak capacity," Anne said. December and January, also peak travel months, were affected by the arctic freeze. Like other businesses whose trade is dependent in some way on tourism, the airport has also been affected by the recession.

On average, the 48-seat aeroplanes used on the Dublin run travel at about 65 percent capacity, the managing director said. Anne said January figures have been weak, though they are expecting stronger figures from March.

Donegal Airport, with a staff of about 30 people, is the largest dars na Gaeltachta-assisted employer in the lower Rosses. dars was fundamental in establishing the airport, calling it a strategic initiative in the development of infrastructure, and remains a shareholder. Donegal companies also received the contracts for the ongoing capital works, including local contractor Hughie Harkin and McCaffrey's of Ballintra.

Anne herself has been there from the start, first in the customer services office and later the airport's commercial manager before becoming managing director in 2002. Similarly, Eils Barrett, operations manager, started at the airport 20 years ago as a customer service agent, and rose through the ranks to her current position.

"The policy of the company is that we recruit from the local area and invest in training," Anne said.

When the airport applied for their most recent PSO, Anne received letters of support from local businesses, including the Caisleain Oir hotel in Annagry and the Letterkenny Chamber. The airport is estimated to contribute 3.3 million euro to the economy on an annual basis, and the Dublin flight is used regularly by businesses and other offices at the Gaoth Dobhair Business Park and in Letterkenny, Anne said.

The airport also serves as a support base for offshore drilling operations, and from May through to September or October, helicopters carrying crews for the nearly hour-long journey to wells off the west and north-west coast of Donegal take off and land at the airport.

Cancer patients in the north-west have long made use of the Dublin flight, and about 14 years ago the North West Cancer Group began subsidizing flights to Dublin for cancer patients receiving treatment, also working with the Health Service Executive and Letterkenny General Hospital to subsidise the flights. "It does make it that bit easier," Eils said.

These days, the airport is seeing another effect of the economic downturn in its passenger traffic: People who are emigrating to find work.

"Now we have people going off to Australia and America, and certainly it is a sadder departure from the airport," Anne said, adding that they see people emigrating on a weekly basis.

But beyond the individuals and groups who already use the airport, it is the wider Donegal community that Anne and others now want to reach. While the airport is located at Carrickfinn, they want to break the public perception that the airport is largely a west Donegal facility, saying they are accessible to a much larger area.

Anne emphasized that the Donegal Airport is just 45 minutes from Letterkenny, the county's largest population centre. They hope that trip will be made easier when Donegal County Council undertakes the upgrading of the local road that leads to the airport, a project that local councillors have been pushing for some time.

"That will make a huge difference to us when it is upgraded," Anne said.

"There is the perception that we're farther away than we actually are," the managing director said. "But once people start to use the airport, they use it on a regular basis."