As the debate over the future of our national airline intensifies, this week we had a close-up view of the Aer Lingus brand in action.
Bordeaux airport at this time of year is not the liveliest spot. Certainly not on a cold, wet Tuesday afternoon – conditions not usually associated with the south-west coast of France – and even less so at the check-in desk where our request for a different/better seat was met with an icy smile and a polite refusal. Désolé, no can do.
Then again, even a semi-sarcastic smile is better than no smile at all, which is pretty much what we get as we’re processed through the airport. From security to café to duty-free to passport check to departure gate, Bordeaux doesn’t really do friendly.
All that changes, however, once we climb the ladder and step onto the distinctive green plane. Big smiles, friendly familiarity, the warmest of welcomes. There are a few business people on the flight but it’s mostly French tourists – excited students, older couples, a few families, a hunting party – taking advantage of the off-season prices to hop over to Ireland.
And watching the passengers react to the friendliness of the green-clad stewardesses, we can’t help thinking that this is the Ireland our French visitors have heard about. When it comes to promoting the two things that Ireland is world-renowned for – friendly people, 50 shades of green – nobody does it better than Aer Lingus, and that’s a pretty powerful brand value.
Lest we wax too lyrical about Ireland of the welcomes, of course, none of the warm and fuzzy stuff will cut any ice when it boils down to deal or no deal for our national airline. That decision, like all big business decisions, will stand or fall on the economics. (On which point, it’s worth mentioning that even on a nothing Tuesday in early March, flight EI507 to Dublin was packed.)
No, the future of the airline will be thrashed out in the rarefied air of the boardroom: if the figures add up to the satisfaction of IAG, Ryanair, the Government and whoever else, the gavel will come down on Aer Lingus and that will be that.
In that scenario the number-crunchers will assert that a deal makes sense; IAG has even claimed that buying Aer Lingus will help them create 600+ jobs in the next five years. Are they sure about that? Are we sure about that? In the long run, will selling the airline benefit Ireland, Inc.? Will it boost our tourist industry at a time when visitor numbers are already climbing? Can anyone be sure?
Our preference, for what it’s worth, would be for Aer Lingus to continue doing what it does best. We sell ourselves to the world as a country that’s flexible and easy to get along with; as a people who welcome visitors and help them make the most of Ireland; as an experience that’s worth experiencing. That experience very often begins, just as it did in Bordeaux this week, by stepping onto an Aer Lingus plane.
We’ll wait and see what happens. But as the Irish Times pointed out last week, selling Aer Lingus might seem like a smart business decision – but once it’s gone, it’s gone.