Where most people might see a challenge, Mary Considine always looks for the opportunity.
Take, for instance, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic; the lockdown occurring less than five months after her appointment as CEO of The Shannon Airport Group.
With international travel grounded, bar essential transit, her team utilised the enforced lull to introduce a number of initiatives. This included investing €2.5m in a new passenger security screening system that scrapped the need for the 100ml liquid rule (and all the associated palaver that came with trying to decant the contents of your bathroom cabinet into a zip lock sandwich bag).
They also worked to attract Ryanair to invest €10m in its first aircraft heavy maintenance facility in Ireland, creating 200 jobs, and continued to expand their property portfolio on their industrial campus, with new tenants including gene therapy company, MeiraGTx.
“The natural thing to do when you are in an emergency is just stop. Stop everything,” reflects Mary on those uncertain times.
“But if you do that, you have nothing for the longer term. You have no pipeline.”
That theme of seizing opportunities is one that comes up repeatedly in our conversation; whether it’s talking about her rise from pay roll to the top job, or tackling sustainability.
Farm to flight
But maybe that goes back to her roots. Originally from Lissycasey, west Clare, Mary is the eldest of seven children raised on a dairy farm. She explains that as her father, Michael, worked in haulage, her mother, Breda, was “the primary farmer”.
“So, it was very much females could do whatever needed to be done,” she reflects. “That’s the environment I grew up in.”
With an aptitude for maths and science, Mary started her career in a small accountancy firm until a job came up in the accounts department at Shannon.
“In west Clare, everybody looked towards Shannon,” she explains. “You had the international airport, but you also had the significant industrial zone.”
Mary zips through her CV, referencing senior roles including airport director, company secretary, chief financial officer, deputy CEO and finally, group CEO in October 2019.
We ask to backtrack a little, though. How did she step out from behind her first desk job and what advice does she have for others who would like to do the same?
“It’s about taking opportunities when they arrive. If a door opens for you, go through that door,” responds Mary, whose first foray outside of her initial role was in route development and marketing.
“It’s about networking. It’s about putting your hand up when there’s projects – especially earlier on in your career. If there’s projects going, put your hand up, get involved, get stuck in and you learn from all these things,” she continues.
“And sometimes, it’s pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone because it would be easier to stay doing what you know really well. But you need to push yourself beyond that comfort zone and that’s how you learn and that’s how you grow.”
One major project that Mary worked on was the separation of Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority in 2012, which she saw as “a real opportunity to do something that would really lift the economic activity in this region and drive it forward”.
It was not an insignificant challenge. That same year, Shannon saw 1.395 million passengers, significantly off the heady 3.6 million they recorded in 2007. Mary explains there are a few factors that explain this fall, including the introduction of the “Open Skies” deal (prior to Open Skies, one in every two transatlantic aircrafts stopped in Shannon), improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency that negated the need for a Shannon stopover, plus the fact that the record numbers coincided with the final roar of the Celtic Tiger.
In 2022, however, Shannon Airport saw 1.5 million passengers; 88% of pre-pandemic levels. By the end of 2023, Mary is hoping they will hit 1.85 million or slightly above, which will exceed 2019 figures.
To this end, they have secured 35 destinations to 11 countries across 2023, including new routes to Béziers, Liverpool, Porto, Naples, Newcastle and Chicago. Since COVID, Mary and her team have also worked with the airlines to restore connections such as the daily flights to New York and Boston and three-times daily flight to Heathrow.
To ensure there is demand to support these services, they have been working to promote Shannon as an option for anybody living within a two-hour drive of the airport.
“As restrictions lifted and people started back travelling, I think they really appreciated how easy it was to use Shannon,” says Mary.
“You could park beside the door, get through security, get through CBP [customs and border protection] if travelling to the States, get through all that in 15, 20 minutes and be at the gate and relaxed and having your coffee or your drink.”
Apart from providing locals with holiday options, such connectivity – especially transatlantic – is “crucial” for the region.
“That’s really our USP [unique selling point],” says Mary. “That connectivity is so important for the FDI [foreign direct investment] multinational industry and the indigenous businesses that are growing in this area, because we’ve got 40% of Ireland’s FDI within the catchment area of Shannon Airport.”
Being based outside the capital, however, means having to work twice as hard. As to how the Government could help, Mary says one of their “key asks” is to be included permanently in the Regional Airports Programme, which provides support for security and safety operational capital spend. She explains that, while EU rules state that airports with under three million passengers can be included, in Ireland the participation is capped at one million.
“It would make a big difference to the state-owned airports if that support was provided up to three million,”says Mary. “If we were partially supported for that capital spend, it would free up more cash to be a little bit more competitive in our airline negotiations.”
She also sees a need for the Government to invest in infrastructure like public transport to the airport.
“Longer term, we would like to see a rail link to the airport, but in the near term, it’s about improving public bus transport to the airport,” she explains, adding that such initiatives can help balance regional development.
“If anything, the pandemic has changed the whole working environment and people realise now you can work and live in the region,” she says. “So it’s about having the infrastructure in the regions so that people can live and work here, that we balance out the population.”
Opportunity in the estuary
In addition to her role at Shannon Airport Group, Mary is currently president of the Ibec midwest regional committee and is a member of the Shannon Estuary Economic Taskforce.
With regards the latter role, she says there is huge potential “to maximise floating off-shore wind on the Atlantic”, with benefits for not just the region or airport, but beyond.
“Not only could we become a net exporter of energy, but we can add real value in this region by bringing that energy onshore or converting it to hydrogen or ammonia,” continues Mary.
“If we’re looking at our own industry, huge amount of work needs to be done to decarbonise aviation and hydrogen is a key component of sustainable aviation fuels. We have no production of SAF [sustainable aviation fuel] in Ireland today, so again it’s an opportunity for Government in their policies to support and incentivise the production of SAF.”
Mary believes that the estuary is the place for this to happen – for instance, by utilising existing infrastructure like the deep water port at Foynes – but that “brave and bold policy decisions need to be made now.”
As for sustainability within aviation, Mary maintains that as “an island nation, we need air connectivity to get in and out of the country.” She sees sustainable aviation fuels as the way of the future to reduce carbon emissions, but says that as well as reviewing airport operations (eg converting their fleet to electric vehicles where ?possible and looking towards developing a solar PV farm on the airfield) the group has also been working with partners on new innovations.
For instance, at the end of last year, they signed a MOU (memorandum of understanding) with ESB to explore the development of a sustainable green hydrogen plant at Shannon, while they are also working with FMCI Air towards developing the first “verti-port” in Ireland to explore possibilities for air drone taxi services and electric aircraft transport for cargo etc.
We ask, though, does the scale of the challenge ever seem insurmountable?
“You could look at it as being, ‘Oh my God, it’s a huge mountain,’” she responds, “or you kind of say, ‘Look, there’s great opportunity here.’”
Now, why doesn’t that surprise us?