Aer Lingus row deepens

AER LINGUS chief Dermot Mannion kept his controversial decision to move the airline’s slots from Shannon to Belfast from all but two other board members.

Though Mr Mannion has said the move was an executive decision and that the Government was not consulted, it had been assumed that the airline’s board would have been briefed.

But last night, a source confirmed that just finance director Gregory O’Sullivan and ‘one other director’ knew of the planned transfer of Heathrow slots, even though preparations had been under way for months in advance.

It is not clear who the other director is, although Transport Minister Noel Dempsey has been assured that 43-year-old lawyer Francis Hackett – who was directly appointed to the Aer Lingus board by the department – was not told.

Directors including 02 boss in Ireland Danuta Gray and former Anglo Irish Bank boss Se·n Fitzpatrick are not believed to have been told but key staff within the company were.

The human resources department, for example, knew at least one month before the August 7 announcement that the routes would be changed.

British-based lawyer Michael Johns, who was appointed to the board by members of the employee share ownership body, was also one of the directors who was not informed.

Other directors left in the dark include Fianna F·ilfriendly businessman Christopher Wall, New York-based millionaire Thomas Moran, and multimillionaire solicitor Ivor Fitzpatrick.

Nobody from the board of 13 directors of Aer Lingus Group was available for comment, despite repeated attempts to contact them.

Mr Moran, for example, told his secretary that all media enquiries should be referred to the Aer Lingus press office.

In hindsight, the clearest signal that Aer Lingus was no longer interested in investing in Shannon was when the company turned down an offer by airport management in 2006 to reduce landing fees in line with a deal with Ryanair.

Further details about how Mr Mannion was able to keep his plans quiet emerged last night.

It appears that he avoided changing the size of the aircraft and arrival times in Heathrow in the run-up to the Belfast deal.

Because the aircraft being used in the new Belfast International Airport slots and the flight times to Heathrow remain the same, the airline did not need to lodge an application to vary its existing Heathrow slots.

If it had to do so, Aer Lingus would have had to notify slot managers Airport Coordination Ltd last May and the news would certainly have leaked.

Instead, Mr Mannion was able to work away in secret for what is estimated to be as long as six months – during which there were at least four board meetings – on his plans.

Over the weekend, the new Shannon lobby group that has sprung up to challenge the airline’s decision is to meet and discuss concerns about the economic impact.

A report by the combined Ennis, Galway, Limerick and Shannon chambers of commerce – which represent 1,600 businesses and more than 100,000 employees – is due to be published on Thursday.

It is expected to state that the airline’s decision will cost more than e1.2bn a year for the next five years in lost tourism revenue, job cuts and reduced investment in the region.

The Irish Hotels Federation estimates that e100m in investments and e150m in revenue is in jeopardy.

Major investments in the area put on hold include a e30m development at Dromoland Castle, and a e50m expansion of Doonbeg golf resort.

There is expected to be a 15-20pc drop in revenue to all businesses involved in tourism.

Limerick Co. Council has even gone so far as to suggest that some 10,000 jobs in 28 multinational companies are at risk.

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