Hurling and camogie

Cushendall hurler and pilot Conor Carson voices fears for airline industry amid Covid crisis

Having earned his pilot licence, Antrim and Cushendall hurler Conor Carson was all set to take to the skies when the Covid-19 pandemic clipped his wings. The reopening on clubs on April 12 will be a welcome relief but, for now, he is part of a group aiming to highlight the difficulties facing the airline industry in these most trying times. Neil Loughran reports…

Conor Carson celebrates after scoring a crucial goal in Cushendall's 2018 Antrim championship replay victory over St John's. Within a few weeks he was beginning Aer Lingus’se future pilot programme in Spain. Picture by Seamus Loughran

IT was just around this time last year that Conor Carson’s new career was finally ready to take flight.

Three months based in Dublin, flying to different destinations across Europe, had followed a 12 month stint in Spain where he was part of Aer Lingus’s intensive future pilot programme.

Throughout that time, everything else was forced to give way, even hurling.

Carson’s love of the caman code was inherited from legendary father Jackie, a man whose nine county titles - spanning three decades in the maroon of Ruairi Og - remains unsurpassed.

Having followed in those illustrious footsteps with club and county, letting go wouldn’t be easy.

Cushendall’s Antrim championship triumph in 2018 was one of his best but a combination of an injury picked up in the county final victory over Loughgiel, and the start of his pilot training in Jerez days before, kept him out of the Ulster final clash with Ballycran.

By the time Carson bounded out for the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final exit to Galway kingpins St Thomas’s the following February, he was on the fringes.

“I essentially said that was me done when I went to Spain…”

Fast forward to last March and all the hard work, all the sacrifice was about to pay off.... until the Covid-19 pandemic came and clipped his wings.

“It was only a couple of weeks after my final flight test and exams and getting my licence issued that Covid hit.

“I never even got to the stage of my first flight – I’d spent a couple of weeks of shadowing, being shown the ropes before I was due a start and then by the time that came we were in lockdown essentially.

“I’ve not been in a cockpit since last March.”

Yet Carson’s concern is not solely for himself but an entire industry whose future has been left up in the air.

Through union IALPA (Irish Airline Pilots Association), he was one of a group of pilots and other aviation industry workers who helped form Recover Irish Aviation to raise awareness of an issue they feel needs addressed before it is too late.

And, with uncertainty continuing to hang over another summer, Carson feels it is critical that some kind of recovery roadmap for the industry is forthcoming sooner rather than later.

“Aer Lingus has in the region of 750 pilots and at the minute they could operate their full schedule with less than 20 per cent of that.

“Once we get to the stage a month or two down the line where vaccines have been rolled out and things perhaps aren’t as bad as they are now, what happens from that point on? Aviation can’t just be switched on overnight.

“Slowly but surely over the last 13 months it has been peeled back and it’s going to take quite a while to be turned back on again.

“Even if there was a magic pill given to everybody on a Monday morning, I couldn’t just go and fly on a Monday afternoon because I haven’t been in a plane in over a year.

“Some Irish airlines are talking about a minimum of 12 weeks’ notice just to get back to the bare basics. Some companies are bringing in rapid antigen testing - we’re not even talking about holidays here, we’re talking more about the business end, commuting - before you depart and when you arrive at the other side.

“Irish airlines are looking at a second summer with probably next to no revenue. Realistically, most are going to need some kind of government grant or bail-out. If you’re looking for the economy to open up in the back half of this year or 2022, bringing back foreign investment – especially with Ireland being a small island off a continent – our business relies on airport support.

“If you want that to be there this time next year, you need to be laying out a roadmap now. We need to know what is the future going to look like. What should we be planning for here?”

Last week Nic Gammon, one of the founders of Recover Irish Aviation, said the industry had been scapegoated for high Covid case numbers and voiced concerns that Irish aviation could face a mass emigration of pilots with so many having been left without work.

Earlier this year Aer Lingus's parent company, IAG, reported that pandemic travel restrictions left it with a €563 million loss last year – an indication of the extent to which the airline industry has been hit.

“As European airlines go, Aer Lingus is relatively small size-wise, yet they’re losing something in the region of €30m euro a month, up to €1m a day, and that’s been the case since last March.

I don’t care what sort of business you’re in, Bill Gates couldn’t sustain that for 370-plus days.

“There’s 143,000 Irish jobs depending on the tourism and transport industry in aviation, bringing work in – that’s your ports, airports, tourist destinations, hotel. This is a real concern.

“It’s okay trying to get Facebook, Google and all these software companies into Belfast and Dublin, they’re not going to be here if they can’t get here. No airline within Europe, maybe even transatlantic, could survive a second summer with practically no revenue.

“There have been some opinion pieces in recent weeks about the number of flights leaving Dublin, Cork and Belfast but, realistically, Aer Lingus is operating at a loss because the belly is carrying cargo including vaccines and testing kits.

“You have an Airbus A330, which can hold 300 passengers, going to New York with single figure passengers on it. Often you will have more cabin crew that you’ll have passengers.

“Aer Lingus are now basing aircraft in Manchester for the first time and have started a new subsidiary called Aer Lingus UK… they’ve basically been forced to look for other opportunities.

“These companies aren’t going to have these assets worth hundreds of millions of pounds sitting on the ground gathering dust while they’re making huge repayments on them every month.”

Antrim and Cushendall hurler Conor Carson qualified as a pilot with Aer Lingus last year - just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit

Carson is keen to point out that the industry is simply asking for future-planning rather than being seen as turning a blind eye to the public health situation either.

When health minister Robin Swann said earlier in the week that foreign holidays should be ruled out over the summer months, it was a blow – albeit not an unexpected one - and Carson knows there is a “much bigger picture” at play.

“I wouldn’t say my heart sank at all… I’m a member of society like everybody else and you have to do the right thing to preserve life.

“You’re talking about peoples’ health - at the end of the day the industry is the industry and jobs are jobs, but health is the main thing. I’d 100 per cent be behind any government steps to try and preserve life.

“This is not about advocating that we should all be in Tenerife next Monday morning. Absolutely not. There’s a much bigger picture and we are all aware of that.”

Despite those frustrations and the ongoing uncertainty, there is one silver lining to be being ground back home in Cushendall for the time being.

From April 12, clubs in the north will be allowed to return to the training field for the first time this year, with the Ruairi Og aiming to bounce back from a strange 2020 that left them empty-handed.

Yet, regardless of silverware won or lost, just getting back out last August, pitched straight into championship battle, was a welcome distraction for Carson and everybody else.

“I suppose we didn’t know what was coming down the line at Christmas, but it was a real release not just for the players but clubs and communities everywhere. I wouldn’t like to have got through last year without having had that, it gave everybody a lift.

“And then it was sod’s law too that it was one of the best years the Antrim hurlers have had and you can hardly get to see a game. To win the Joe McDonagh was brilliant but getting back into Division One as well in the same year, that’s superb.

“Every Antrim fan was delighted on the one hand, but also a bit heartbroken they couldn’t be there at Croke Park… hopefully they can stay in the Liam MacCarthy and Division One. That would be an unbelievably successful year.

“Like everybody else though, I’m just looking forward to getting back out in a couple of weeks and trying to regain some fitness. It’s been a long wait, but it will be a welcome escape.”

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Hurling and camogie