An interview with Bill Byrne, the airline’s VP for global sales
By Ed Forry,
Boston historically has been a “Gateway City” to Ireland, one of only three American cities with that distinction. Over six decades, Ireland’s national airline, Aer Lingus, has delivered maybe a million or more happy Irish folks to and from Boston and the Emerald Isle.
For many, the route has been straightforward – a ride over to Logan Airport at suppertime to board a green-colored, shamrock-bedecked aircraft for an overnight flight to Ireland. For many years, the flight went directly to Shannon Airport, in Co. Clare, and after a brief stopover, it would continue on for the half-hour flight to Dublin. In the mid-1990s, a direct to Dublin non-stop was added, and in the busy summer tourist season, there often were three or more daily direct flights to both Irish cities.
Many Boston Irish have family roots in the west of Ireland – Galway, Cork, Sligo, Kerry and the midlands among others – and they found that the five+-hour flight across the Atlantic to Shannon would deliver them close to their home counties.
But that all changed around St Patrick’s Day 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and the airline industry shut down worldwide. The next month, when the Irish government imposed strict rules that dramatically curbed the number of visitors coming into the country, and required 14-day quarantines for all arrivals, Aer Lingus canceled the Shannon flights, continuing flights from Boston only to Dublin throughout the pandemic.
Faced with a long road trip by bus or rental car back to the west of the island after the overnight flight to Dublin, many Bostonians have found those trips much less convenient. Still, even as Ireland begins to re-open for visitors, the Aer Lingus Dublin flights remains the only reliable way to get from here to the Irish homeland.
Bill Byrne, Aer Lingus’s Senior Vice President for Global Sales for Aer Lingus, spoke recently with BostonIrish.com about the airline’s strategy for travel between the eastern US and Ireland.
“Certainly, New York, Chicago and Boston are the gateways to Ireland. Throughout the pandemic, those are the only ones that we've operated and we've continued to operate those, even though we've had few to no passengers up until recently,” he said in a Zoom interview.
“We did that for a couple of reasons: There were some that still travel coming out of those cities; People had to get back, that is, they might have had investments or sick relatives or something they had to get back to. And also, we're the airline that connects America and Ireland. And if you can't fly out from those cities, then what are you saying about yourself as a business?
Byrne said Aer Lingus has routes from 14 North American cities, but New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC and Toronto are now active. “We follow most cities booking requests every day. We have had all the other cities on sale, with the hope that travel would return at some point. And then when it becomes obvious travel is not returning, we must cancel. So that's kind of how we've been operating.
“What's happening with the Shannon service from both Boston and New York is pretty much the same,” said Byrne. “If we could get substantial numbers of people that want to fly on that flight, we'll put it into service.
“Shannon isn't flying right now for a couple of reasons. One, there's little or no corporate traffic moving at all, and there's not a significant amount of tour business going into Ireland right now. So, without those two elements, you really only fly in people who want to visit family, and that flight to Shannon is not enough to save the day.
“We’re currently into the fall season.” he said. “And even though we fly Shannon continuously, we're the only airline that has committed to Shannon and we've committed to Shannon for 60 years. The winter is not a great time to fly to Shannon. You don't have the tour groups, don't get a lot of corporate. And even the Irish Americans in Boston and New York go to Ireland much less frequently in the fall and the winter than they do from Paddy's Day through August or September.
“I think the issue that we're looking at for Shannon very carefully is this: We’ll fly there if there's some interest, but we really honestly don't expect the interest really to come back till St. Paddy's Day next year. I mean, that's kind of what we're doing.”
Byrne refuted Irish media reports the airline had pulled out of Shannon . “Because of the pandemic, we haven't operated any flights out of Shannon since April of last year. Two daily flights to New York and Boston and three flights a day to London, that's our usual schedule. And what's happened since April last year is we've had no flights and don't know what our schedule is going to look like in the immediate future. So, we decided to relocate flight attendants based in Shannon and crew them with flight attendants now based in Dublin. So we've closed the flight attendants base, but we haven't closed the airport. We still have airport staff. And like every company is doing all around all around the world, we're looking at ways to economize how we do business. But we haven't closed Shannon operations.
Byrne also said the airline has begun charging new baggage fees, but they are limited to short-haul flights only, matching similar fees charged by Ryanair. “What it is, it's a bag that goes in the overhead, and Ryanair charges. And so we put the same program in place. There's still a small carry-on bag allowed for free.” The new carry-on charges have “nothing to do” with the flights from the US and Canada, he said. “We do have baggage fees on the long haul, but that's explained clearly on the website and we've had those in place for five years, at least.”
Does Aer Lingus have a message for Bostonians thinking about a visit to Ireland any time soon? “I think a couple of things we'd like to stress is, especially with your readership, I mean,” said Byrne, “is that for 60 years Ireland has counted on the business of the Irish going back home and visit family and friends. And we think we've served the community pretty well, and we try to continue to serve the community really well. And so we just hope that as they're gearing up to go back – and we're seeing it every day in Boston – they'll take a look at us because we've been there for 60 years. We have a uniquely Irish experience. You're not going to get that on anybody else.
“I think that's one of the things that we want to stress – as the social media builds up and as you talk about it more, Ireland is ready for them.
They've missed having Americans come over. And I think Bostonians know all too well that their family that wants to come visit them have not had the opportunity. And they're waiting for that as well. And we'll be there when that door opens.
“I think the lead would be Ireland is opening,” said Byrne. “We're there waiting for it. I think that's the best we can do. And when all the places you go to when you go back – I mean, some of these pubs have been closed, right? – they're just dying to have Americans come back, spend a few bucks and talk to them. You know how it is in Ireland. It's not about the money; it’s about the social life. And they're just waiting to talk to them.
“There's no better time than now, fares are not going to be any cheaper than they are now. Things are open and they'll have places just to go and see and do when they get there. And the Irish are waiting to see them, especially for Boston. I get questions about buying to come back to Boston constantly.
“We're hoping the doors open at least in time for the fall when we can get a rush of people and then, hopefully, a little bit for Christmas and we can do pretty well for ourselves. Connecting Boston to Ireland is what we do, and we take it pretty seriously.”
In a statement issued in mid September, Byrne added: “ ‘After a slow summer, we are thrilled to be welcoming customers back on board this winter, reuniting families and friends and offering long awaited trips to Ireland. We are delighted to see the restart of our North American routes such as Toronto this weekend and Washington last month. Aer Lingus has great offers for our North American customers, with something to suit all families, couples, groups and solo travelers. We look forward to welcoming you on board soon.”