Analysis: Ireland's long aviation history may explain why so many Irish people end up running airlines and other aviation businesses

By Padraic Regan, TCD

The appointment of Sean Doyle to replace Stephen Kavanagh as Aer Lingus CEO from next year serves to highlight an interesting fact. What do the following airlines have in common: Aer Lingus, British Airways, Etihad Airways, flynas, Jetstar, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Royal Brunei Airlines, Ryanair, Tiger Airways, and VivaAerobus? Answer: they all have - or had - Irish leaders.

Location, location, location

As an island nation on the periphery of Europe, with North America across the Atlantic, Ireland quickly established aviation as a central and necessary focus in the early industrial development policies of the state. The flights paths of transatlantic travel during the 1930s and 1940s clearly show the pivotal role of Ireland (and Foynes, its flying boat hub) and the opportunities associated with this new business sector were speedily identified and pursued by the Irish government.

From RTÉ Archives, 1976 RTÉ News report on the first flying boat to land at Foynes after 31 years 

Where eagles dare

Founded in May 1936, Aer Lingus launched its first flight from Dublin to Bristol with a DH-84 Dragon aircraft DH-84 Dragon aircraft named "Iolar" (Irish for eagle), its only aircraft for the next two years. As most other European nations approached aviation with a military orientation, the concentration of Aer Lingus solely on civilian passengers and cargo gave it a distinct advantage in the years to come.

Within a few years of Aer Lingus commencing operations, Rineanna Airport (later to be renamed Shannon) was handling aircraft, some of which took 17 hours to reach Botwood in Newfoundland for refuelling and onward to New York. In 1940, a new Dublin Airport was opened in the northern suburb of Collinstown.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report by Micheal O’Briain from May 1986 to mark 50 years of Aer Lingus

Although activity levels reduced considerably during the Second World War, these three developments served to further consolidate Ireland’s position in the global aviation industry. The airline's leaders were gaining valuable experience and demonstrating high of innovation (for example, the world’s first Duty Free Shop credited to Clare-born Brendan O’Regan).

The Ryan line is open

In 1975, Tony Ryan set up Guinness Peat Aviation, an aircraft leasing company funded by Aer Lingus and Guinness Peat financiers which became the largest in the world. In its heyday, it had profits of $250m, a turnover of $2bn and a workforce of some 200 aviation professionals. Although GPA was to fail 17 years later, many of its staff remained in the industry and today manage some of the largest aviation companies in the world, such as Michael O’Leary with Ryanair (which was established by Ryan in 1984) and Domhnal Slattery in aircraft leasing company Avolon.

From RTÉ Archives, Michael Ryan reports for RTÉ News in July 1985 on Ryanair's first flight which flew from Waterford to London Gatwick

Ryan himself had cut his teeth in Aer Lingus and the national carrier (now owned by IAG) was to act as a training ground for many leading Irish aviation managers today, including Alan Joyce (Qantas), Conor McCarthy (AirAsia, Dublin Aerospace) and Willie Walsh (Aer Lingus, British Airways, IAG). Those who experienced the seismic shift in competitive nature forced on Aer Lingus with the arrival of Ryanair in 1985/6 gained particularly valuable insights into the cut-throat world of airline management.

Inside-out Clusters

Although airlines are generally seen as the most glamorous of the three pillars of aviation - airlines, airports and air traffic control - Ireland has contributed leaders not just to the three pillars but to all aviation-related activities. The biggest single-site travel retail operation in the world, Dubai Duty Free, is managed by ex-Shannon Airport/Aer Rianta International manager Colm McLoughlin.

From RTÉ Radio One's The Business, a profile of Dubai Duty Free boss Colm McLoughlin

Such is the prevalence of Irish leaders in air transport activities around the world that they often take the form of clusters which dominate the aviation-related organisations in a particular city or region. These geographic concentrations of related industry expertise enhance productivity, innovation and economic development for the sector as a whole and regularly constitute the basis of industrial development clustering policies across the globe. For example, Enterprise Ireland launched a Pilot Clustering Programme in 2016.

Whilst numerous views have been put forward over the years to explain this strong Irish connection with aviation, perhaps Qantas boss Alan Joyce best captured it during a speech in Dublin nine years ago: "there must be something in the water - or the Guinness - here".

Dr Padraic Regan is Ussher Assistant Professor in International Strategic Management at Trinity College Dublin whose industry research focuses on Aviation Management


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ