In stark contrast to the wrangling and politicking that has underpinned the glacial progress made on a third runway at Heathrow, across the Irish Sea, Shannon Airport has been quietly going about its business.

It’s an approach that has served the hub well. In October, it picked up the top gong of Airport of the Year at the European Region Airline Association’s (ERA) annual awards. A sizeable factor in the airport’s success was the quick and cost-effective turnaround on a runway upgrade project last year.

Through a combination of self-funding and a €15m commercial loan from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), Shannon managed to complete an entire redevelopment of its sole runway six weeks ahead of schedule while staying under budget. Even more impressively, the airport remained open throughout with work undertaken in the middle of the night.

Clearly Shannon and Heathrow are two different beasts; not least in size, with the latter handling roughly 77 million more passengers each year than the former. But – notwithstanding MPs finally rubberstamping plans for a third runway at Heathrow earlier in the year – lessons can be drawn from Ireland’s third largest hub.

Three-time winner: what can other airports learn from Shannon?

Shannon, which has now picked up the ERA’s highest accolade three times, having previously won in 2014 and 2015, is clearly doing something right.

The logistical choreography required of renewing a runway in the wee hours – between its last European arrivals in the evening, to the first transatlantic touchdowns in the morning – is a fine art. In securing funding from ISIF, the airport also demonstrated a knack for putting a sound financial case together.

“The logistical choreography required of renewing a runway in the wee hours is a fine art.”

The ERA’s Airport of the Year award ultimately recognises airports which have had a positive impact on intra-European air transport operations while maintaining strong relationships with the airlines they serve. In the case of Shannon, happy carriers include Ryanair and Aer Lingus, as well as Lufthansa, Delta Airlines and United Airlines.

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With the wider aviation industry putting on more daily flights than ever before – indeed, tracking site FlightRadar24 captured 202,157 flights across the world on 29 June, the busiest day on record – Shannon’s success also raises the question of what airports collectively need to be doing to facilitate seamless arrivals and departures to and from their runways.

What airlines want: “the lowest cost and maximum efficiency”

John Strickland, an aviation analyst who was on the judging panel at the recent ERA awards, believes airlines’ expectations of airports are two-fold: they are looking for operational efficiency and realistic costings.

“Airlines want the lowest cost and maximum efficiency,” he says. “They need punctuality, in the case of customer satisfaction, as they are at risk of being penalised via the likes of EU261 if they don’t get their own passengers to destinations on time.

“Competition and market dynamics are also putting pressure on price.”

“Competition and market dynamics are also putting pressure on price, creating even greater need for the airport to be efficient.

And does the onus fall on airports to attract lucrative airlines to their gates – or is it the other way around?

“I think it varies case by case,” says Strickland. “If you want to fly to a big market or city, you may only have a choice of one airport. In which case, the airport is sitting pretty waiting for airlines to come in. Although this isn’t always the case, naturally. Most international cities, such as London, have more than one airport to choose from, but they rarely all have the same operational capacity.”

Shopping around: do airlines have the upper hand over airports?

Beyond the operational capacity (or lack thereof) of airports in any given city, airlines are free to choose alternative destinations – another city in the same country, or perhaps another country altogether – although these choices are contingent on other factors, such as whether the flight is long-haul or short-haul, and the type of aircraft.

“Airlines do shop around,” says Strickland. “However, most of the time they prefer to stay at a particular airport, city or market.”

Essentially, airlines are looking for airports that are bendable to their needs and, as Strickland puts it, “recognise the changing shape of the airline business”. If this is the case, one might therefore infer that the airport-airline relationship is lop-sided in favour of the carriers.

“Airlines are perceived by some people as having the upper hand.”

“Airlines are perceived by some people as having the upper hand, in being able to move their aircraft around, but the reality is that they’d much rather keep flying to a particular airport on a particular route, if that route is viable,” says Strickland.

“So there’s a lot of effort and energy to move aircraft and stop routes and to change capacity – and of course airlines are often looking for new routes – but if you’ve invested in infrastructure, crew, or support services, such as engineering, and have established a traffic flow, airlines don’t really want to move.”

Cross-fertilisation: bridging the culture gaps between hubs and carriers

According to Strickland, it is the airports who best understand these methodologies – which vary from airlines to airline – who are best placed in understanding where they fit in the total cost picture.

“Some airports would do well to recruit their managers from the airline world.”

This can be challenging, however. While airports and airlines may be entirely reliant on each other in order to shuttle passengers across the world, they can sometimes culturally be worlds apart, says Strickland. This, in turn, can create tensions between the two parties.

“I actually think some airports would do well to recruit their managers from the airline world, in order to create a kind of cross-fertilisation,” he says. “They tend to have a better understanding of what airlines really need and want. Because, on occasion, there can be a sad gulf in understanding between the two sides, as well as suspicion, which isn’t very productive.”

 Providing an airline with a decent runway, of course, always helps. Shannon Airport can testify to this.