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Moville high-flyer speed dates for Ireland 28.09.07

Moville and Greencastle know him as a keen golfer and water sports enthusiast but when he's not relaxing at his Foyleside holiday home, Cormac O'Connell is busy as head of aviation marketing for Dublin Airport.
Here he tells Paul O’Kane of 'Connections', the airport's inflight passenger magazine, about growing business at what is now one of the top 15 airports in the world for international traffic.
“IT'S like speed dating with airlines,” says Cormac O’Connell with a laugh. O’Connell, who is head of aviation marketing with Dublin Airport, is talking about the annual routes conference in September when senior airline executives and airport operators get together. “You have a series of 20-minute meetings with airlines and you make your pitch,” O’Connell explains. Clearly possessed with stamina that the average speed dater would envy, O’Connell recalls that he held 27 one-to-one meetings with airlines during the two-day conference while another member of his team had 20 ‘dates’.

Like any speed dating veteran, he’s also pragmatic about being rebuffed. “Once you get a no from somebody – and it’s never personal, they just aren’t interested in what you’re selling – you move onto somebody else.” With facilities at Dublin Airport stretched by the huge growth in passenger numbers in recent years, you could be forgiven for questioning why the airport bothers to market itself at all. But this is a rather simplistic view, according
Cormac O'Connell.
to O’Connell. He points out that the gestation period between an airline first thinking about launching a new service to Dublin and actually welcoming the first flight is often several years.

And while facilities are stretched currently, the DAA has embarked on a €2 billion investment programme to expand, improve and modernise Dublin Airport. The investment in a new terminal, new boarding gates and eventually a new runway means that additional capacity is coming down the tracks. “You can’t simply turn the tap off we have to keep talking to the airlines. We can’t stick up a sign and say I’m sorry Dublin Airport is full. Can you imagine the reaction if we did that. The tourism industry wouldn’t be too impressed and what would it say about the Irish economy as a whole,” he says.

The marketing team’s key focus at present is on bringing new long-haul routes to Dublin, as the advent of T2 will create additional long-haul capacity. Long-haul passengers tend to stay in Ireland longer and spend more while they are here and - depending on the route -additional long-haul traffic can be more easily slotted into the less busy periods at Dublin Airport. The annual routes conference in September and autumn and winter scheduling conferences give O’Connell and his team “a good feel” for what the airlines are thinking. Aside from formal and informal meetings at the three big annual conferences, O’Connell talks regularly to network planners for the major airlines, be they existing or possible future customers. “You’ve got to meet your customers and keep meeting them.”
Cormac O'Connell with his cousin Leo McCauley at a local wedding in Redcastle. Network planners are the key decision-makers for Dublin Airport’s aviation marketing team as they weigh up the amount of money that is being made from each route and the competing attractions of new destinations. “They are the guys who make the decisions to stay or to go,” he says. As you would expect, the conclusions are arrived at dispassionately and the bottom line always wins out. “It’s about bums on seats and the yield [the price per seat] that the airlines can achieve.”
For this reason, research is O’Connell’s bread and butter. His pitch to a prospective airline is never `Dublin is a great place to be’ but rather ‘fly here and you’ll make money’.

He argues that it would be wrong to think that he and his team were banging the drum selling Dublin Airport. “I’m not marketing an
airport: the airport is just the place where the planes take off and land. I’m marketing Dublin, Ireland, the Irish economy, Irish tourism, our international trade and a host of other factors that make us an attractive location. We then pull all this information together to make a compelling story about the overall appeal of flying routes into Dublin. We let the market research led us into what is a credible story.”

O’Connell and his team keep on top of economic data and liaise closely with the major trade and tourism associations. Passenger and cargo data are also monitored. “We look at who is doing business here currently and where that business is going. About 80% of the cargo flown out of Dublin is what is known as belly hold cargo, which means that is it carried in the hold of normal scheduled flights. When you know where that cargo is going and its value you quickly get an understanding about the income that certain new routes could generate.”

Passenger movements are also closely monitored. Through detailed passenger surveys and information from airlines, the DAA can track the exact final destination of travellers. Historic onward connections data for example showed that there was a huge demand for a direct flight from Dublin to San Francisco. About 75,000 people per year were flying from Dublin to San Francisco, but they were either changing in London or in the US onto a San Francisco bound flight. Solid tourism and trade traffic underpinned this route. San Francisco is the natural destination for Silicon Valley and Ireland has a large IT industry. San Francisco and the Bay area is also a hugely attractive tourist destination with a large Irish community

All this pointed to a lucrative market in the Dublin-San Francisco route. and with the recent Open Skies liberalisation of the rules governing air traffic between Ireland and North America, Aer Lingus will launch a San Francisco service this autumn. The data drives the routes as the two other new Aer Lingus routes to the US – Orlando and Washington DC – are also in Dublin Airport’s top 10 onward connections locations. The advent of Open Skies will bring further new routes to the United States and to Canada and O’Connell is also already talking to long haul carriers about the impact of another major change to the rules for flying between Ireland and the US.

Currently US-bound passengers clear American immigration in Dublin, but a new system will mean that passengers will also clear US customs in Dublin. Dublin and Shannon will be the only airports in Europe to offer this facility. “The ability to offer CBP [customs and border protection] in Dublin will be a big attraction,” says O’Connell. “It will open up the entire US market as airlines will be to fly from Ireland to any domestic airport in the States.” Other international flights from Europe will have to land at international airports in the US and these have much higher charges than their domestic counterparts. Clearing CBP in Dublin also means it will be much easier to transfer onto a connecting flight once in the US.

While Shannon will also have this CBP facility, O’Connell does not see Dublin in competition with Shannon. “Our competition was never Shannon or Belfast, my target airport has always been Manchester Airport and how it has developed.” He adds that while Manchester Airport used to be much larger than Dublin, that is no longer the case.
O’Connell argues that while the huge growth in passenger numbers created the capacity problems for Dublin Airport that are now being addressed with the €2 billion investment programme, they also moved the airport and the country into another league. “When you hit 10 million passengers per year that’s the first hurdle, but when you have more than 20 million passengers as we now have, you’re a serious player. Most people don’t realise it, but Dublin Airport now has more international passengers than JFK.”

Despite being one of the world’s top 15 airports for international traffic, O’Connell still occasionally ends up talking to an airline executive who is a little unsure of his provenance. “They think that we are Iceland rather than Ireland!” He used to mention U2 to clear up any misunderstanding but now as he deals increasingly with airlines in the Middle East and the Far East he finds that Enya works better.
Go East!
Adding new long services to the East is a key medium-term target for the aviation marketing department at Dublin Airport, according to Cormac O’Connell. The DAA’s onward connections research shows that destinations such as Bangkok and Singapore are already hugely popular out of Dublin Airport. But perhaps surprisingly, Beijing is even more popular as a current destination. “We are doing 55,000 passengers a year to Beijing, all of whom are travelling out of Dublin and then connecting elsewhere.”

Although few people might realise it, Beijing is actually a slightly shorter flying distance than Los Angeles so a direct Dublin-Beijing route is a realistic goal. “We are talking to a number of airlines
about this route. There’s a good mix of traffic on the route with 38% of people visiting friends and relatives and 33% travelling for holidays,” adds O’Connell.
Crunching the numbers also shows that there is huge demand for flights into South East Asia and beyond to Australia. The DAA is currently talking to airlines in Singapore and Thailand and the huge demand for routes into South East Asia and beyond is also one of the key factors behind the recent decision of UAE-based Etihad to launch a service from Dublin to Abu Dhabi.

Etihad is partly marketing the route, which currently operates four times per week, as the fastest way from Ireland to Australia as it offers a single stop in Abu Dhabi and the a direct non-stop service to Sydney. Etihad’s decision to launch a Dublin route was due in no small part to the airline’s chief executive James Hogan and previous pitches made by the aviation marketing team in Dublin. Hogan was previously chief executive of Gulf Air and knew the potential of the Irish market as Gulf launched its own service to Dublin. Due to a reduction in its international network Gulf recently exited the Irish market, but the work that Cormac O’Connell and his team put in with Gulf helped land Etihad, as Hogan and some of his team had already been convinced by the Irish story.

The Etihad boss is bullish about the potential of the Irish market. “There’s huge demand out of Ireland,” Hogan said in July when Etihad launched its Dublin service. O’Connell is the first to admit that it can be a long slow process to convince a new entrant to consider the Irish market, as just because an airline does not say no, doesn’t mean it is saying yes. He has been in contact with executives in one large airline for more than 10 years. The airline is interested in Dublin but has yet to launch a service. O’Connell remains confident that it’s a matter of when rather than if.

Even when the hard work pays off, it can take several years. He started talking to US carrier Continental in 1993 and it launched its Dublin service on June 16, 1998. The US airline now has routes out of Dublin, Shannon and Belfast. “They launched on Bloomsday and they’ve been blooming every since,” according to O’Connell. would like to thank 'Connections' editor Neil Hayes and reporter Paul O'Kane, for the kind use of this article and photographs.
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