The chief executive of the Shannon Group has said the decision to separate Shannon Airport out into an independent entity from the DAA has been vindicated.

The decision was taken to merge the airport, its properties and the Shannon Development Company into a new state entity which could operate as an engine for growth for the Midwest region.

Passenger numbers through the airport have grown by a third since the Shannon Group was established five years ago, including growth of 6.5% last year, bringing total numbers to 1.86 million in 2018.

"After four years of growth, that decision has been vindicated," Matthew Thomas, CEO of the Shannon Group said.

"We've seen good growth across all our divisions. It's been supported by our ambitious investment strategy in developing new commercial property. We've gone from an occupancy rate of 40% in the Shannon Free Zone to 90% now."

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Mr Thomas said it was difficult to judge if the group had been unrealistic when it set targets of growth in passenger numbers to 2.5 million annually within five years when it was established.

"We operate in a very competitive market. Growth in passenger number of a third compares favourably to other airports outside of Dublin. It really benefits from being the capital city and is not directly comparable."

The Shannon Group has expressed concern about connectivity to a major EU hub post-Brexit. It currently has daily flights to Heathrow, which is expected to be outside of the EU in the coming months.

"It is a concern for the whole of the West. The region needs connectivity to key business markets. The region is currently well served into North America but we need to replicate that into key east bound hubs such as Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

"We can remedy that by being very competitive and presenting a compelling proposition to an airline. We need the support of all our stakeholders and ideally government support to make that proposition compelling," he added.

As to whether there might be a Brexit dividend for Shannon, Matthew Thomas said there was interest from UK businesses in coming to the West of Ireland.

Among its new tenants in the Shannon Free Zone last year was Jaguar Land Rover, a company that has been vocal in its criticism of Brexit.

"Our proposition is compelling in terms of the calibre of the workforce and the strength of the tertiary education institutes here as well as there being high levels of disposable income.

"As to whether the decision by Jaguar was directly related to Brexit or not? I think they'd say it's not. They decided Shannon was the ideal place to develop their autonomous vehicle," he stated.

The group is bringing forward ambitious investment plans as its stock of properties has been exhausted.

So far, attracting skills to the regions has not been a problem.

"We will continue working with third level institutes to develop the pipeline of future talent but also it will become increasingly focused on how to bring talent back to the West," Mr Thomas said.