*Liam Skelly. Photograph: Natasha Barton
SHANNON AIRPORT’s “golden goose” was snatched by Dublin Airport when it was stripped of Aer Rianta International while becoming an independent airport.
When Shannon Airport split from the Dublin Airport Authority (daa) over a decade ago to become an independent entity, it came at a severe cost with the loss of Aer Rianta International (ARI), a move which it still has not recovered from according to a former Director of Shannon Airport.
Liam Skelly, a native of Holycross who has been living in Scariff since the 1950s was a founding director of ARI. He joined the sales and catering division of Shannon Airport in 1955 and was appointed Airport Director in 1979, helping return the business to profit through a ground-breaking fuel bartering deal with the Soviet government.
In 1987 Skelly headed an Aer Rianta delegation to Moscow with the intention to develop duty-free in Russia, and the following year the Irish company’s joint venture with Aeroflot and the Russian authorities, Aerofirst, began trading as Moscow Duty Free, marking the birth of ARI.
During an in-depth conversation with The Clare Echo at his beautiful Scariff home, Liam aired his frustration with the manner in which the 2012 decision to take ARI from Shannon and leave it with the daa, one that was made when current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (FG) held the role of Minister for Transport.
ARI formerly owned the nine Great Southern Hotels which they sold for €265m in 2006. He recalled, “they now had cash so they could release Shannon but they didn’t do anything and said nothing, Shannon never complained, it carried on until 2012 when they had the State Airports Act which said that Shannon would be independent and when it had cash free to give it its independence, a lot of the deputies said and Seamus Brennan the lord have mercy on him he said Shannon created Aer Rianta and of course Aer Rianta International so of course it must go to Shannon when it gets its freedom.
“Shannon got it in 2012 and they said Shannon would have to pay for its freedom, they said it was something like €80m or €105m at that stage, they said they wouldn’t charge but just take Aer Rianta International from them, they removed Aer Rianta International, Shannon never owed a penny but Dublin took Aer Rianta International, it was a goldmine making millions every year and they still have it, Shannon which needed it to create the jobs and employment, they shifted the people to Dublin and they stayed in Dublin, Shannon has lost out and I’ve been furious about it ever since but nothing has happened”.
Skelly despite being a founding director of ARI left the company in 2010. “They got rid of me in 2010 because they felt I would be a hindrance when they were taking over, Dublin got rid of me really, they felt I’d be criticising them for taking over, Michael Hanrahan who was one of my assistants and an executive was let go also, we had withdrawn and were heading on to go continue getting new positions, they had got lots of them by this time so they said they would take over and good luck to us”.
One could argue that ARI knew Liam would fight the cause for it to remain with Shannon. “They knew I’d be kicking up, it was terrible. It was Shannon that needed it, Dublin had millions of passengers going through and Shannon had nothing. There was 2.4m passengers in 2003 compared with 1.4m in 2012, consequent employment also tumbled, its losses increased, Cork’s fortune also declined but not to the same extent. The 2004 Act which was to set us free has been almost forgotten and only partly implemented in legislation even though it was signed into law in 2004, no monitoring system was in place to ensure that the decisions were implemented, that was a major weakness in the process and it was an absurd decision to trust the DAA to deal fairly with the processing of Shannon and Cork’s independence”.
On reflection, he is more annoyed with how Shannon and the Mid-West was treated rather than him when it came to the departure. “I wouldn’t be bitter, it was unfair but that is life. I wouldn’t wish them any bad luck but they were really unfair to us, we did the bloody job and Shannon needed it, it had nothing and they were prepared to leave it that way. What the Government said, Varadkar the so and so who is still there, he said that Shannon owes Dublin €200m if they withdraw from it that would be the cost but the Act said they were withdrawing for nothing, nobody picked them up on that, no other opposition got up and asked did they know the story of Shannon at all, they had to pay nothing for their independence but he said they owe this money so instead of getting the money off them with their independence in 2012 that they’d take Aer Rianta International which was giving them the €207m and giving them millions every year since, it was the golden goose they got.
“I got fed up being bitter about them, it was lousy, unfair. If it was the opposite way that Dublin were entitled to it and Shannon got it then you’d say it might have been fair because Shannon needed it but it was Shannon that owned it and the other eejits (Dublin) were let take it to pile more money and jobs into the city with less jobs down here, people had to be transferred up and people got their walking papers in Shannon, they got early retirement or go to Dublin, most of them didn’t want to go to Dublin. It was an awful decision, it was one of the big black marks on Aer Rianta”.
Aer Rianta’s success began in the sales and catering division of Shannon Airport, yet today it has no link or connection with the International Airport. “The story of Duty Free shopping began in sales and catering of Shannon, Dr Brendan O’Regan, there was no duty free anywhere in the world, Brendan saw it when he was on board a ship and said it was a thing we should think about, he was friendly with Sean Lemass and he got permission to set it up. People were coming from all over to see how he did it, we were telling everybody about it so the other airports eventually went ahead and had ones too”.
Where it once led the way for the world to follow, Shannon is no longer a global leader. “It has never recovered from running duty frees around the place which it could still be at, it could have advanced and meant Shannon was the headquarters of what was happening with duty frees around the world. One of our men, Colm McLaughlin went down to Dubai and set up a Duty Free there for them, he stayed then and has done very well. John Sutcliffe was another who went. It was a big comedown for Shannon to lose all that business”.
Varadkar’s decision as Transport Minister has left Shannon with wounds that remain open, Liam believed. “Mr Varadkar made a bad decision by giving away Aer Rianta which he did in 2012, it was to pay for Shannon’s independence but if he read the 2004 Act it was clear from the outset that Shannon and Cork won’t have to pay for their independence but that they will have to wait until money is got in distributable reserves. Aer Rianta were to sell things to get distributable reserves, they had The Great Southern Hotel which they sold and got €200k, they sold interests in Birmingham Airport and got another €200k, they had loads of distributable reserves, they held onto it all but Shannon got none of it and was left struggling on”.
This decision could have been prevented by officials in the Department of Transport who he felt conveniently ignored the 2004 Act. “I blame the guys in the Department who would be working with him, they were the crowd who were working with the Dublin lads, you don’t blame the politicians because they are only here for a while and then gone, the Department fellas knew what was happening, they started working with Dublin and saying ‘leave it to me’, they’d be wined and dined in Dublin, everything Dublin Airport had on they would bring out the Department guys. That wasn’t fair”.
Passenger numbers were also impacted by the ARI decision, the father of seven felt. “You had to go out looking for traffic that was crossing at the time which was looking for a place somewhere to land and who gave them the best deal. Part of Shannon, the airport management side in the old years, they wouldn’t see that at all, they’d say an aircraft goes from point a to point b in the shortest way possible, we said it would go from point a to point b in the cheapest way possible not the fastest way. That’s what was happening, we got business in that way and since then with the jets flying anywhere traffic is going down and Shannon has to look to something else, they lost two years to COVID. A lot of money was lost from Shannon, well Dublin took it and Shannon lost out”.