Ireland is an island, and as such of course very much dependent on sea and air transport, bringing in all the goods we need and taking out our exports, as well as carrying passengers and tourists into and out of the country. But the question has to be asked if a small nation like ours, with just about four million people, needs two major (and several minor) airlines.
Back in the olden days, when a return ticket to the European continent could easily cost 600-700 Irish Punts and was therefore available only to the rich and famous (and of course politicians and civil servants traveling on state business), Aer Lingus was Ireland's only airline. Rigid, stuffy and fully state-owned, it was nevertheless a symbol of national pride. We were a sovereign country now (at least since 1949, after going through the various stages of metamorphosis that turned the British caterpillar into an autonomous pupa, which then gave birth the the republican butterfly) and had a flag-carrying national airline of our own, proudly sporting the shamrock and spelling its name in Irish. Even if we could never afford to use any of their aeroplanes (except when emigrating to the USA, perhaps), we were looking up to them - literally - when they flew in and out of Shannon, Dublin and Cork.
Much has changed since. Aer Lingus is still the "national flag-carrier", but no longer the only and not even the largest Irish airline. This honour is now bestowed on Ryan Air, once a tiny little company, operating their one and only propeller aircraft out of Waterford regional airport.
But ever since Michael O'Leary - once a small shop keeper in Dublin - took charge of it, Ryan Air grew and grew, making it now the world's largest airline by number of passengers carried. And it is still growing.
The "secret" to such success is no secret at all. It is money. Michael O'Leary, undoubtedly one of the most clever, cunning and successful businessmen this island has produced in recent times, introduced the "low fare" concept - originally invented by the US airline Southwest - to Ireland and Europe. Suddenly air travel was affordable for everyone, and a vast number of people took advantage of it. On certain days Ryan Air would fly you from Ireland to Britain or the European continent - and back - for less than you would pay Bus Eireann for a day-return ticket from Waterford to Cork.
O'Leary's marketing strategy made not only his airline strong, large and profitable, it forced Aer Lingus to change and adapt as well. In order to survive besides Ryan Air and other "low cost" airlines, the once state-owned, arrogant and expensive "national flag carrier" had to become a "low fare" airline itself, adding - slightly embarrassed - the suffix ".com" to its proud Irish name. When this was only partially successful, the Irish government decided to get rid of the "albatross around its neck" and privatise Aer Lingus. (Not surprisingly, Michael O'Leary tried to take it over, but was blocked under anti-monopoly laws.)
Ever since nothing is the same again at Aer Lingus. Mentally still the airborne wing of the Civil Service with a slightly arrogant and patronising attitude amongst the staff (especially the senior people), the company is now run on extreme capitalist lines, with maximising of profits for the shareholders and directors the number one target, and cost-cutting applied everywhere else. It led to a breakdown of proper communication between top managers and normal staff, and every time I have encountered people working for Aer Lingus in recent times, I had the clear impression that they were not happy. And their service is getting worse and more expensive at the same time. Now the passengers have to pay an extra fee for checking in their luggage on Aer Lingus flights, a gimmick also applied by Ryan Air, while long-faced ground staff hostesses in the rheseda-green uniforms of the airline stand around idly, occasionally talking down on the great unwashed that use their services and therefore pay their wages.
In all fairness, Ryan Air is not much better and Michael O'Leary seems to find constantly new things he can charge his passengers for - like a "wheelchair fee" or "luggage surcharge" - in order to make a profit, while his "nominal ticket price" remains low (or at least appears to be so). But Ryan Air is not the national carrier and people have no expectations from them. They accept low standard air transport as long as they can get it for a low price.
Meanwhile at Aer Lingus an internal war is fought daily between staff and management, which leads - inevitably - to industrial dispute and possible strike action. SIPTU has balloted members working for Aer Lingus and are preparing for industrial action over a new cost-cutting plan from the airline's management. This 23-page-long "Flexibility and Mobility Agenda" contains the details on implementation of €10 million worth of cost savings sought from SIPTU members. It is still not clear how this dispute will play out, but one thing is sure already: whatever will happen, Aer Lingus passengers will have to pay for it. Shareholders and directors will still rake in their profits, and thanks to their union the staff will not suffer either. So we, the ordinary folks using the airline, will foot the bill, regardless. Unless we come to our senses and do a little bit of the good old Irish boycotting ourselves. I am ready for it and willing to refrain from any further use of Aer Lingus. So perhaps you can join me in giving up Aer Lingus for Lent.
The Emerald Islander
(with both feet firmly on the ground)