History of Shannon Airport

Introduction

Shannon Airport is unique both in its location and its place in the history of world aviation. Of all European Airports it is situated at the most western point, making it the ideal stepping stone between the old world and the new. Chosen for its geographical position as the transatlantic gateway between Europe and America, Shannon was designated as Ireland’s Transatlantic Airport at its inception by the Irish Government.
From the airport has grown a vast infrastructure of enormous importance to Ireland’s Mid-west region which includes an attractive and growing tourism enterprise as well as the world’s first duty free industrial zone.

The airport itself covers about 2,000 acres in County Clare on the north bank of the Shannon Estuary and is located approximately 24 kilometres (15 miles) west of Limerick City and a similar distance south of Ennis.
Shannon Airport meets all the requirements of a first class international airport and much more. Runway (06-24) is capable of taking the largest type of aircraft now in operation. This facility is used by scheduled and non-scheduled carriers. The Shannon region has temperate and varied weather conditions and is an ideal location for an Airport.

There are almost 2000 people employed at the airport (not counting the nearby Industrial Estate) of which the airport itself employs about 270. The remainder are employed by a number of State Services including the Irish Aviation Authority, the Meteorological Service, Immigration, Customs, Agriculture, and Public Health as well as commercial services such as airlines, aircraft handling agencies, car hire, tourism interests, taxi hire and fuel companies.

In 2014 Shannon handled a passenger throughput of over 1.6 million people with over 1.7m scheduled to use the airport in 2015. Well over a 100,000 passengers who travel through Shannon do so as transit passengers, breaking their journey at Shannon while travelling between Europe, the Middle East and North America. 

During 2014 there were over 25,000 aircraft movements with over 22,000 of these being a combination of scheduled and non-scheduled aircraft with the remainder being principally training flights.

Dr Brendan O’Regan

Dr. Brendan O'Regan was born in Sixmilebridge, County Clare in 1917.  In 1943, he was appointed as Catering Comptroller at Foynes flying boat base. He was later transferred to Rineanna Airport (now Shannon International Airport) where he continued as Catering Comptroller. Dr. O'Regan established the world's first Duty-Free shops at Shannon Airport in 1947. In 1951 he established the Shannon College of Hotel Management. Many hoteliers and senior managers at top hotels around the world are testimony to the success of the Shannon College with the college still going strong. In 1954 he set up a direct mail-order shopping service to expand sales into North America. Brendan and his senior management established in 1961 Ireland's only regional development agency, Shannon Free Airport Development Company (SFADCO; later Shannon Development), and the Shannon Free Zone, which attracted industry from around the world and has today the single biggest collection of US industries on the island. 

History of Shannon Airport the gateway to the West of Ireland

1930’s
The townland of Rineanna (in Gaelic this translates to the “meeting place of the birds”), Co Clare had a good reputation back in the early 1930’s as a spot for wild duck and geese shooting along the north side of the Shannon Estuary. The same muddy flat land near the sea which gave the area its ideal hunting qualities also presented the authorities with the large flat terrain which was perfect for aviation.

Transatlantic aviation in the Shannon Estuary first commenced, however, with a seaplane base at Foynes. In October 1935 the Irish Government took a decision to initiate a survey "to find suitable bases for the operation of seaplanes and landplanes on a transatlantic service". The Department of Defence which provided technical advice on aviation to the Civil Aviation Section of the Department of Industry was given the task.

On 21 November 1935 a survey party set out for the West of Ireland and surveyed sites as far north as Athlone and south to Askeaton. Among the sites for a seaplane base which were considered were: the Shannon just below Limerick, Lough Derg, Lough Corrib, Tralee Bay, Kenmare Bay, Lough Ree and Valentia. But it was Foynes, near the mouth of the Fergus River which was finally selected. Its good sheltered anchorage and its proximity to long open stretches of water convinced the surveyors Foynes was the best choice.

During the surveying for the land site, the team split up in their efforts to find a suitable location. From Knockbeagh Point, one of the groups discovered that there was a land area to the west which, though wet was suitable for landplanes. The survey team reconvened in Athlone and having examined the reports went to Rineanna to survey. Following a satisfactory report, the Government approved the choice of Rineanna and directed that work should begin immediately. 

The first priority was drainage to remove the surface water from the site and to construct embankments to prevent flooding of the airfield because of its proximity to the tidal river Shannon.   Several hundred men were employed to dig narrow lateral drains for the 135 miles of so of pipes which were laid in parallel lines 50ft apart over almost the whole area of the airfield site and to excavate catchment drains to collect water from the surface of the site.

At that time all indications were that regular aerial travel between Europe and the U.S. would be initially by flying-boat and accordingly, the base at Rineanna was designed to cater for both land-planes and flying boats.  Construction work commenced to build embankments and a break-water to provide for a seaplane base and to protect the airfield site from flooding from the Shannon River.

Four grass runways were marked out, the longest being a mile in length and four hundred yards wide, running almost southwest to northeast. The other three grass runways were two hundred yards wide and were laid out so that there was an angle of approximately 45 degrees between each adjacent runway.
Colonel Charles E. Lindbergh was reputed to be in Europe as an agent of the U.S. airline Pan Am surveying locations to establish an Atlantic gateway into Europe from America. In December 1936 Lindbergh flew over the site in his Miles Mohawk and later walked over part of the area with Minister for Defence, Frank Aiken, and officials from the Departments of Industry and Commerce, Defence and the Board of Works. Great satisfaction was expressed concerning the suitability of the site.

Developments in aviation during World War 1 ensured land planes and not flying-boats were to be the future of aviation, therefore the mooring basin and the east breakwater which were being constructed for flying boats at Rineanna were never quite finished.  Construction of the embankments continued, to protect the site from the river Shannon and to form a drainage lagoon for surface water from the western headland of the airport site. 

On Thursday the 18th May 1939 the first aircraft landed at Rineanna, the aircraft was the Irish Air Corps Aero Anson A43.

Less than two months later the first passenger aircraft landed at Rineanna on the 11th July 1939 a Belgian airliner (a tri-motor Savoia Marchetti S-73 of Sabena).  The Crew and eight passengers alighted from the aircraft and were cheered by the assembled workmen before driving off in cars to Foynes, where they were to board Pan American’s ‘Yankee Clipper’ Boeing 314 flight to the United States the following evening.  News quickly spread of the presence of the Belgian airliner and during the course of the following day hundreds of sightseers crowded into Rineanna.  By the time the Sabena crew had returned from Foynes to Rineanna at 9.15pm that evening there were almost 500 people gathered to watch the aircraft take off on her return journey to Croydon onto Brussels.

1940’s

Though World War II would contribute much to aviation, it delayed the development of the new Shannon Airport. During the War, Imperial Airways, the forerunner of B.O.A.C. and later British Airways, operated flights into Shannon from Bristol, to coincide with the flying boats operating to and from Foynes.

Catering facilities were provided both in Foynes and Shannon Airport as passengers from England travelling on to the U.S. through the Foynes terminal arrived by land plane at Shannon Airport.  After lunch passengers were conveyed by road coach to link up with the flying boats out of Foynes each evening.  Similarly, passengers off the flying boats for England joined the land planes out of Shannon.  To provide a comfortable catering service worthy of the country, a complete catering staff had to be based at both centres.  The first chef to work at the Foynes terminal was Joe Sheridan the creator of “Irish Coffee”.  By the mid-forties, the use of flying boats to carry commercial flights was dying out and by 1946 the airboat facility at Foynes was closed. The catering facility in Shannon from that point on offered fresh Irish food to the weary travellers at all hours of the day and night.  The Airport was the point of entry for all international air carriers as it was the shortest route to Europe and the Middle East.

The first scheduled flight from the United States landed in Shannon Airport on the 24th October 1945. The aircraft was the “Flagship London” an American Overseas Airlines (AOA) DC4. “Flagship London” had flown from Gander to Shannon in 8 hours 20 minutes and broadcasts had been made from the aircraft while en route which were relayed over a nationwide radio network in the United States.  In 1945 Shannon also began receiving scheduled aircraft from Trans World Airways (TWA) and Pan American Airways (Pan AM). 

The number of international carriers using Shannon rose sharply in the succeeding years as the airport became well-known for providing the gateway between Europe and the Americas. Limitations of the operating range of aircraft at the time (DC4, DC6, Lockheed 749) necessitated the interruptions of journeys for refuelling.  Shannon became the most convenient and obvious point before and after the flight across the Atlantic and most of the airport’s income derived from providing fuel, food and accommodation for these aircraft and their passengers.

1947 was an important year for Shannon Airport. Construction of terminal facilities and runways were finally completed and the Government passed the Customs Free Airport Act by which transit and embarking passengers, goods and aircraft were exempt from normal customs procedures.  Shannon Airport had become the first Customs Free Airport in the World and established Shannon as an International Industrial and Distribution Centre and stimulated further traffic growth.

The Shannon Sales and Catering Organisation were licensed by the Irish Department of Transport, enabling Shannon to conduct commercial and catering activities at the airport. 

In 1947 the world’s first duty-free shop opened at Shannon Airport, and began as a simple kiosk measuring just a few square metres, selling souvenirs and gifts.  The Duty Free shop became an immediate success and has been copied worldwide. 

1950’s

In 1951 the first Airport Duty Free Liquor Shop was opened. It started as a ship’s store where airline stewards purchased supplies for re-sale to passengers when the aircraft became airborne. The same applied to cigarettes and tobacco which began as supplies for crew only.  Later, passengers were allowed to make direct purchases at tax free prices on a restricted basis and soon Shannon became, famous for having the only airport duty free shop in the world. In the beginning, Shannon “Duty Free” applied only to liquor and tobacco, but it rapidly developed into an impressively large number of tax – free departments, which is how it remains today for Transatlantic flights.Throughout the 1950’s, aircraft on the North Atlantic were still piston engined.  In 1959, however, long range jet aircraft such as the Boeing 720 and Boeing 707 and the DC8 began operating on the route.

1960’s

To ensure that Shannon facilities would serve these long range aircraft, a new runway was commissioned in 1961 which would have a length of 10,000 feet.  During the construction of the jet runway (06-24) a small fisherman’s house was taken down brick by brick and reconstructed in the shadow of the newly renovated Bunratty Castle.  From this grew the major mid-west tourist attraction of the Bunratty Folk Park which to this day remains one of the top tourist attractions in the country annually.

By 1966, the main runway was extended to 10,500 feet 3,200 metres which is its present length.

In the mid sixties Boeing announced its plans to produce a “Jumbo” (B747) jet which would be capable of carrying up to four hundred passengers. This decision affected all major airports as new facilities had to be provided to service aircraft of this size. Both McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed also announced intentions to produce wide-bodied aircraft.

Over the years, physical development at Shannon has been a continual process of adjusting to the latest aviation technology. Runways which had been adequate to cope with the propeller aircraft of the late forties and fifties had to be lengthened to cater for jet-age aircraft. Aircraft parking space reached saturation level with each new wave of airliners. Increased traffic necessitated building extensions. Terminal buildings originally designed to handle passenger throughput from propeller aircraft suddenly became inadequate to cope with the jet-age aircraft’s increased capacity. As well, air travel became accessible to more and more people during the 60’s. Air travel was no longer for the elite.From 1945 to 1969 the airport was managed in turn by the Department of Industry and Commerce and by the Department of Transport. In 1969, the Irish Airport Authority, Aer Rianta, assumed control of Shannon airport as an agent of Ireland’s Minister for Transport.  Aer Rianta took over just as it had become obvious that a dramatic reappraisal of Shannon’s terminal facilities was necessary due to the introduction of wide bodied aircraft. Where Shannon was geared to handle an aircraft disembarking over 100 passengers per flight, now it would be required to handle over 300 passengers per aircraft.  The Department of Transport’s planners had realized that a completely new terminal was required for the increased passenger loads. Government approval for a new facility was obtained in 1968.

1970’s

This new terminal was designed and under construction within months of the first flight of the Boeing 747 in 1969. Work was continued that year by Aer Rianta and the facility was ready for operation in May 1971. The terminal was comprised of two buildings, one a large rectangular shaped edifice housing a comprehensive range of aircraft facilities, and a 900 foot long narrow pier building with airbridges extending out onto the apron. The simplicity of the new building allowed extensions to or alteration of the buildings as required.

1974 Aer Rianta acquired the Shannon Sales and Catering Organisation. As well as the commercial and catering operations, Sales and Catering ran the Shannon Mail Order Company, Castles Banquets and the Shannon College of Hotel Management.

Shannon did have one enormous drawback, for all its efforts to maintain the latest technological achievements it was technology itself which was the greatest threat. The jet engine with its capacity to reach well into Europe from the Americas seemed to threaten obsolescence for Shannon. What was the necessity for an airport with a very small catchment area on the north-western end of the European seaboard, if aircraft could reach the main centre of Europe without technical stopovers.

Shannon had to reach up into the skies to attract aircraft Including Airport Duty Free shopping, th a campaign to draw training flights followed, featuring a top technological airport where noise pollution would not be a major problem and where weather conditions were varied though temperate.

Terminal passenger traffic at Shannon had been adversely affected by the onset of new aircraft technologies, Northern Ireland troubles, recessions in the United States and by the World Energy Crisis. In 1974 Aer Rianta initiated an aggressive marketing programme to attract technical landings by U.S. supplemental and charter airlines. This proved very successful and the airport survived a very difficult period in its history.

In 1978, Aer Rianta approached Aeroflot Moscow with a proposal to store Soviet Aviation Fuel at Shannon for use on the Soviet airline’s transatlantic services. On 6 July 1979, a formal agreement was signed in Moscow between Aer Rianta and the U.S.S.R.’s Ministry of Civil aviation.

1980’s

By June 1980, Aer Rianta had constructed a dedicated fuel farm at Shannon for the storage of Soviet origin fuel.

The first Aeroflot flight to uplift this fuel landed at Shannon on 3 July, 1980.  In 1980 the total Aeroflot landings at Shannon was 240, in 1991 the airline operated 2,000 aircraft through Shannon using their own fuel stocks. Aeroflot operated flights from Moscow, St Petersburg, Kiev and Minsk to various cities in the USA as well as Central and South America. The airline had traffic rights from Shannon to all their Central and South American destinations as well as Miami, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Gander, Newfoundland.

In 1983 a unique barter fuel agreement was negotiated between Aer Rianta and the U.S.S.R.’s Ministry of Civil Aviation. This enabled Aer Rianta to sell Soviet aviation fuel to other airlines which in turn, offset Aeroflot’s hard currency operating costs at Shannon.  

Later in 1987 Aer Rianta would also become involved in the repainting and refurbishment of Aeroflot aircraft at Shannon when a dedicated painting hangar and refurbishing facility was constructed at Shannon and officially opened in August 1988.

With a view to the promotion of technical transit traffic at Shannon, Aer Rianta approached the U.S. Federal Authorities in the late 1970’s to establish United States pre-clearance for passengers at Shannon. It was intended to follow on the lines of such facilities at Canadian Airports. Following various negotiations which culminated in an inter-governmental agreement between Ireland and the United States, the U.S. Immigration Pre-Inspection facility was set up on a trial basis in 1986. This proved successful, and a permanent facility was constructed and opened in 1988. It proved very popular with both terminal and transit passengers. It was the first of its kind in Europe and represented another innovation at Shannon Airport.

Having achieved so much at Shannon, the Airport team set their sights higher and sought to use the hard earned reputation to create commercial opportunities abroad.  Early in 1988 Aer Rianta and Aeroflot established a joint venture company, “Aerofirst”, to set up and operate the first duty free shop in the former Soviet Union at Moscow's Sheremetyevo 2 International Airport.  The shop was opened on 1 May 1988.  
As a result Aer Rianta International (ARI) was formed as a subsidiary of Aer Rianta based at Shannon Airport. 

1990's

From its formation ARI has continued to expand as one of the world’s largest, airport retailing companies.  ARI designed, managed and operated duty free and duty paid airport retail outlets in Europe, Asia and the Americas.  

In the late 1990’s the design and construction of a new extension to the Terminal Building at Shannon Airport commenced.  The Airport’s departures area was relocated into the new extension and a new road system was also constructed to rationalise traffic flow for passengers arriving and departing the airport.

2000’s 

In March 2000 the new Shannon Airport Terminal was opened with capacity for 4.5 million passengers.  The extension is contained over four floors with the bulk of the 10,800 sq.m area of accommodation on the Ground and First Floors. The building accommodates the Departures Hall with 40 no. Check-in Desks, Car Hire and Airlines Desks, a Restaurant, Bar and additional Office Space. New baggage screening facilities were provided with a tunnel link to a refurbished baggage basement. The public viewing area on the top-level provides views of the airside local landscape and Shannon Estuary.

The Terminal Building extension won the Irish Architects Awards for the Best commercial Building in 2002

In July 2003, the Government announced its decision on the future of Irish Airports and Aer Rianta.  The Government’s decision was to establish Shannon, Cork and Dublin airports as fully independent and autonomous authorities under state ownership and this was legislated for in the State Airports Act 2004.  

Under the 2004 State Airports Act, which came into effect in October 2004, the Dublin Airport Authority assumed responsibility for all the assets, liabilities and contracts of the former Aer Rianta.

In 2008 full ‘Open Skies’ for passenger traffic came into effect which presented the airport with further challenges in retaining its transatlantic business.

In August 2009 Shannon Airport became the 1st airport in Europe to have full United States Preclearance Services following the construction of a new US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) preclearance facility for Commercial operations.

2010’s 

In March 2010 Shannon Airport became the 1st Airport in the World outside of the United States to have pre-clearance for Private aircraft.  In June 2010 pre-clearance services extended to non scheduled commercial airlines and business jets.

2012

The last quarter of 2012 saw a timely resurgence for Shannon, with new services announced for Philadelphia (US Airways) and Chicago (United Airlines), a return of Aer Lingus to JFK and Boston, and Delta to JFK, giving Shannon direct services to five US airports for Summer 2013. It remains, along with Dublin Airport, as one of only two airports in the Republic of Ireland with flights to and from the US and, from a transatlantic perspective, services the entire west coast of Ireland. 

In November 2012, Aer Lingus also confirmed a new three times weekly service to Faro, Portugal, operating from May to September with an Airbus A320, strengthening Shannon's summer-sun destinations.

In December 2012, it was announced that Shannon Airport would separate from the Dublin Airport Authority, who still own Dublin and Cork airports. On 31 December 2012 at 11:59 pm, Shannon Airport became a publicly owned independent commercial airport operated by the Shannon Airport Authority plc.

2013: Independence from the DAA

The first passengers through the newly autonomous airport arrived on the Aer Lingus EI-110 flight from JFK at 5:08 am on 1 January 2013 (New Year's Day).  Shannon Airport also welcomed the early launch of the Aer Lingus summer schedule to the US as a vote of confidence in transatlantic services at Shannon.

On March 21, Ryanair announced a new twice weekly route to Alicante, Spain to commence June 5 for the summer months.

Return to Growth

Rose Hynes was appointed to the Board as Chairman Designate in November 2012 and was appointed Chairman in January 2013. In March 2013, the new company appointed Neil Pakey as its first CEO.
Traffic figures for June 2013 report an 8% increase on the previous year and the first time a traffic increase has been recorded in 3 years. Shannon Airport stemmed a five year decline in passenger numbers in its first year as an independent entity passenger figures confirm. 

Some 1,400,032 passengers flew through Shannon over the course of the year, up from 1,394,781 in 2012.  The marginal increase was achieved despite a difficult start to 2013 as month-over-month passenger numbers again decreased in the months through to June when the airport recorded its first month-over-month increase in five years. In March 2014 Less than 15 months after the airport was made independent nine new routes commenced with Shannon enjoying its biggest week in almost a decade in terms of new route start-ups.

In 2015, the airport continued to see growth and handled 1.71 million passengers.  Shannon Airport is committed to the delivery of a safe, secure and customer focused airport operation. This is achieved through its commitment in delivering its services to the highest national and international standards and best practice.  Shannon Airport provides daily access to the US, UK and Europe and is a key economic driver for a region that stretches from the south to the northwest of Ireland.