I originally missed this article in the Irish Times from earlier in the month – ‘Offaly airport plan passes first hurdle.’  “A plan to build an international airport in Co Offaly has cleared the first hurdle after a decision by An Bord Pleanála to grant it ‘strategic infrastructure’ status.  The decision means the developers of the proposed airport at Tubber will be able to apply directly to the planning board and will not have to submit an initial application to the local authorities.

As reported in the Midland Tribune: “In making its decision the Board said the Airport ‘would be of strategic economic importance to the region and the state, in that it is aiming to provide a reliever airport to Dublin airport and increase competition within the aviation market’.  Furthermore the Board said ‘it would contribute to the realisation of the objectives of the National Spatial Strategy by improving accessibility and connectivity in the midlands region, which could assist in the improvement in the economic performance within the gateway’.”

My initial reaction is to wonder whether Ireland really does need another airport?  The argument being forwarded by those driving the project is clearly ‘yes’.  The rationale seems to be that the Midlands gateway requires an airport to support local and regional development and attract inward investment.  And there is a literature that does support the argument that airports can act as catalysts for local entrepreneurship and investment, as well as being sizable employers in their own right.  From a midland’s perspective, the proposal seems quite attractive.

Ireland, however, already has a large number of airports  servicing international routes given its population base, some of which are not a great distance from the proposed site at Tubber, Offaly – Dublin (113 km, 1 hr and 8 mins), Galway (97 km, 1 hr 20 mins), Knock (96 km, 1 hr 40 mins), Shannon (146 km, 2 hrs), Cork, Waterford, Sligo, Kerry, Derry, Belfast (*2) (all distances and times from Google Maps), and the local population base is relatively small (and could not sustain the projected 2 million passengers by 2020 without people traveling from elsewhere in Ireland to use it).  Many Irish airports have received substantial investments in recent years; some are suffering operational problems due to falling passenger numbers (e.g. Shannon’s fell by 12% last year); Dublin seems in little need of relief given the new terminal; and given the number of existing airports there is a level of competition.  Is another airport simply going to cannibalize the business of existing facilities (as has happened with hotels)?

One argument runs that this will be a private development and therefore if it’s not commercially viable then it will fail with no loss to the tax payer.  However, there are very few infrastructural initiatives of this size that does not draw on significant state funding and supports in some way, and its operation will require public servicing.    I’m open to persuasion on the need for a midland’s airport, but the evidence is, I think, going to need to be pretty compelling.  The next step is environmental impact assessments.  If it does go ahead I can already imagine Ryanair seeking to get it renamed as Dublin(Offaly) as per Frankfurt(Hahn) and dozens of other locations.

Rob Kitchin