Pat Byrne has spent the last 18 months battling, firefighting, surviving. And, by his own admission, it is starting to show. Even over Zoom, you can hear an exasperation in his tone, and a frustration in his words.

Before the pandemic virtually grounded his fleet of aircraft, Byrne was already knuckling down with the various stakeholders at CityJet, the Irish-based airline that he founded, sold, and then reacquired back in 2016. A series of events – some freak, some not – had pushed the airline into losses for 2018 and 2019, and Byrne was working on a restructuring plan to arrest the decline.

Before he finalised agreement on the plan, something he tells me was within striking distance, Covid-19 arrived. Faced with little alternative, he dispatched lawyers to the High Court seeking bankruptcy protection and the appointment of an examiner. The company was successfully reengineered, emerging in July as a smaller entity with fewer aircraft and a diminished workforce.  

And this is just the start. He is currently battling both the Irish tax authority and the Department of Finance over an unintended oddity that Byrne and CityJet maintain is driving up staff costs by €12 million a year. Byrne tells me that the airline will consider leaving Ireland if it loses its case at the Tax Appeals Commission or if the government refuses to relent and amend legislation.

Meanwhile, over in London, it has been engaged in a fraught arbitration process over technical support failures from the manufacturer of a newly delivered fleet of Sukhoi Civil Aircraft SSJ aircraft from a Russian manufacturer. The debacle cost the airline €30 million and was one of the reasons behind’s the company’s pre-Covid woes. Byrne says the issue has just been resolved. 

But his biggest bugbear is the government’s response to the pandemic itself, which he describes as “appalling and reckless”. He adds that, like Covid-19 itself, Ireland has imported a draconian response from China. 

Byrne says the Government is pandering to a minority of public health experts, advocates and academics. “They get unprecedented access to the airwaves and they are never challenged forensically on the science behind what they’re saying,” he argues (this is a subject we will return to repeatedly). 

Given what his in-tray has looked like in recent years, and his obvious disenchantment at the government, I can’t help but wonder if he has any regrets leading a consortium to buy back Cityjet in 2016, a deal that saw him return to the business he founded in 1993. 

“Yes and no,” he says, before pausing for a moment. “Overall, yes, I am glad. I’m back there six years now. Yes, we had phenomenal growth. Maybe we bit off a couple of things too many. I think that the complication of the Russian aircraft is certainly a challenge. But the rest of the business, phenomenally proud of it, I think we did a great job. Nobody planned on the pandemic. 

“We had our problems before the pandemic, and I will never deny that. But I think we were going to work our way through that, absolutely. We were looking forward to our merger with the Spanish (a deal had been agreed to merge with regional carrier Air Nostrum) which would have brought us together in a bigger boat. So, do I regret it? No, I don’t regret it. Has it been tough? Yes, it’s been tough, but I don’t regret it. It’s also been very exciting.”


I reached out to Pat Byrne two weeks ago. I had covered the CityJet examinership extensively, and I also had been struck by how complimentary the examiner, the accountant Kieran Wallace, had been towards Byrne and his management team when I interviewed him shortly after the company emerged from court protection. Wallace, who normally brushes off questions about individual cases, had been glowing: “An awful lot of hard work went into the process from everybody including the company and its management under Pat Byrne – it was a tricky time given where the aviation sector was at to make it all work,” he told me.

I was interested to question Byrne about the nuts and bolts of the examinership process, and the airline’s future growth strategy emerging from it. But I was also curious about the practicalities of running an airline when most of your planes are on the tarmac and not in the air. For hoteliers or publicans, the rules are sad but clear. Bur for airlines, it is anything but. CityJet had 10 aircraft flying for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) up to end of November. It is now down to three aircraft and even these are not flying full schedules.

The government’s guidance to avoid non-essential travel, allied with the lack of clear legislation around it, has caused consternation in the industry. Conor McCarthy, the founder of Dublin Aerospace, has queried why the government has not implemented the recommendations of its own aviation taskforce. 

“You sweat it every day and you try and second guess what’s going to happen and you’re watching all the time,” Byrne says. “We watch all the time, not so much what’s happening in Ireland, we’re watching all the time what’s happening with the governments in the EU, the restrictions change by the week. There’s no uniformity to it, which is another mystery as to why there can’t be uniformity across the EU. There isn’t. There should be but there isn’t. So, it makes it quite difficult. 

“But we’ve got great people, we get on with it and every opportunity we get to fly, we do. We’re constantly at the ready and if it comes back sooner, we’ll be able to do that too. You know, you’re left second guessing all the time. It’s very tough. It’s mentally very tough.”

Pat Byrne: “I can’t figure or fathom why the Irish Government have been so ignoring of the tribulations of the industry here.” Photo: Bryan Meade

It is on the subject of the government’s response and the clash between air travel and public health advice where we begin the interview. 

Ian Kehoe (IK): How would you rate the government’s response in terms of aviation?

Pat Byrne (PB): Appalling and reckless. Aviation has been really good for Ireland over the years. We’ve prided ourselves on the fact that we’ve produced a lot of aviation people, that we have spawned airlines. Something like 60 per cent to 65 per cent of every aircraft operating on the planet does so with leases written in Dublin. 

We’ve encouraged a huge amount of aviation activity. It employs about 40,000 – well, it did employ about 40,000 people – and it’s been really good for our connectivity. I think it’s been a huge factor in selling inward investment into Ireland because it’s been such a well-connected island and has been a seamless part of the EU and that’s been very attractive. And overnight, that’s just been washed down the toilet. It’s all gone. I mean the devastating silence from government and the “we don’t give a damn” attitude of the government about the aviation industry has been remarkable. And then the knock-on effects of that on tourism and on hospitality. I actually find it remarkable; I really do. I find it absolutely remarkable. 

IK: Lets come back to the merits of that argument in a moment. Because you are not the first to make that point. Conor McCarthy expressed his surprise at the lack of implementation of the government task force on aviation. What do you think is behind the government’s stance?

PB: I don’t know why they have behaved in the manner they have. I don’t know whether it’s kind of begrudging Ryanair sitting on four billion of cash, I don’t know if that’s an angle and they shouldn’t have that attitude, they should be immensely proud of Ryanair because it’s been a phenomenal story. Aer Lingus certainly didn’t do anything about putting their head about the parapet at all in all of this. And I think we saw last weekend they got €150 million of a loan from ISIF. So, maybe they just didn’t want to. They probably copied what happened in other countries – a lot of legacy carriers didn’t scream and shout because they were getting bailed out by their governments. Like as well as everything else, the competition regulation has gone out the window in the industry as well. 

IK: Were the bailouts not needed? Do you think the bailout of the sector is bad for competition?

PB: In the click of fingers, look at the number of airlines around Europe now that are state-owned once again. It’s a right mess. I can’t figure or fathom why the Irish Government have been so ignoring of the tribulations of the industry here. I’m still in a state of kind of despondency about it. I just don’t get it. It makes no sense at any level to me, none. 

IK: Well, I think the government would argue it is about protecting public health – about putting public health over one industry – or any industry?

PB: This is government gone completely mad, you know. They’re copying other governments. The virus is not the only thing we’ve imported from China. The repressive measures we’ve imported from China as well, this experiment in crowd control is truly awful – what’s going on in modern western democracies is just quite shocking. So, there’s never been a cost benefit analysis done of lockdown. There’s never been a risk assessment done on lockdown. If you’re running Ireland or any of the EU countries at the moment as a business; let’s say you had a business emergency to deal with, you’d do a risk assessment and you’d do a cost benefit analysis and you’d come to a strategy and you’d say we’re going to implement that strategy because we understand it. But they’re completely flying blind.

There is absolutely no idea of what this is actually costing in lives, other lives, general health, mental health. I mean yesterday we heard domestic abuse is up 100 per cent. We don’t have the numbers on suicides yet. We don’t have the numbers of missed cancers yet but know that cancer screening and other serious condition screening has just completely fallen away. The underlying conditions haven’t gone away but people are not going for their screenings. And when they do, for a number of them it’s going to be too late, God love them. 

You know, the kids’ futures have been put on hold. No social life. Think of the devastation that’s been caused by the repressive strategy of lockdown, which has never been tried before. 

IK: Sorry Pat, if we don’t listen to the public health experts, what strategy would you advocate?

PB: I would advocate listening to the proper science. Recognising that it is seasonal, recognising that as we come into spring and early summer this thing doesn’t transmit, just falls away because it doesn’t transmit. It follows the trend of a flu virus. I’m not saying it’s flu. But similarities and patterns of its seasonality are very similar. That’s what I read and that’s what I’m told by people who know an awful lot more about this. 

IK: But what does that mean in practice? 

PB: I think the big trick that was missed was testing. And not the test and trace, the PCR stuff that they go on with, that’s bullshit. They have failed and to embrace the widespread use of rapid antigen testing in the community. That should have been done months ago. Every healthcare worker and every visitor or anybody with any business going in or out of a healthcare setting should be antigen tested every day before their shift starts. And if you’re a visitor to the place, do an antigen test. 

It’s cheap as chips. It takes 15 minutes to get a result. It tells you if you are infectious and you don’t go in if you’re infectious. And if you’re clear you go in. But when you think of that, like a third of the current deaths are in nursing homes and nearly a half of the infections for… and I’m only quoting figures that we’re getting from the HSE. Between a third and a half of the infections in hospitals were actually acquired in hospitals. You know, so like what does that tell you? We just didn’t control the people at risk. We didn’t protect people at risk. So, I would and I’m asking the question, why wasn’t antigen testing introduced months ago?

Pat Byrne: “I think that in crushing the virus I actually think we’ve crushed our society and our economy.” Photo: Bryan Meade

IK: You have an aviation business and travel has been completely decimated in this virus. 

PB: Yes. 

IK: You could be seen as having that biased voice Pat. Do you see that?

PB: I could and I could also say that I’m probably one of the at-risk categories of getting this damn thing and I don’t want to get it. I could say that I do give a damn about society. I mean, yeah, I’m a business man but I’m also a citizen of this state and I give a damn about what we’re doing to society and I give a damn about the young generation, what we’re doing to them. I think it’s absolutely, truly shocking and I don’t think we can shut down the world for a virus of this nature. I think it is mass hysteria promoted by the state and they’re copying other states. It’s not rational. It is actually not rational. And then we get the thing of, well, there’ll be a new strain and a new mutant.

We know who the vulnerable categories are. It’s not just old people with comorbidity, it is people who are obese and it is people who have got underlying conditions like diabetes too and so on. But the categories at least are known as to who’s vulnerable. So, we’ll shield and protect the vulnerable but we don’t shut down everybody else. Look, I give a damn about what’s happening SMEs, I give a damn about what’s happening high streets. The death of cities and towns, you know, it’s half a million people on the pandemic payments, a half a million. 

IK: Do you think we can recover from this, the economy in general and the aviation sector in particular? Can it get back on its feet after all of this?

PB: I think that the aviation sector is going to be fundamentally altered. I think it’s an inevitability. The damage that has been done to the industry has been catastrophic. I think the damage that’s been done to, especially, small to medium-sized companies is devastating. And I think that we’re going to have a smaller SME sector, which is tragic.

I think what’s going to happen our society and our economy is that we’re going to be over dependent on the big global firms. Like they’ve been able to ride this out. In fact, they’ve all done exceptionally well during this. So, big global companies have done very well out of this but small to medium-size businesses have been hammered. And people in tourism and hospitality, you know, it’s been absolutely devastating for them. So, I think there will be lasting effects on Ireland, on society. Yeah, there will be lasting effects of this. We have no idea what the effects on our kids are going to be. I would say the mental health issues that we have stored up now in the last few months are going to be very scary and very frightening and will unfold over the next few years and I think there could be lasting effects there. So, I think that in crushing the virus I actually think we’ve crushed our society and our economy. And I think that it’s a very, very badly worked out sum. 

I just think it defies belief that we’ve just gone like lambs to the slaughter here. We’ve just gone along with it because it’s politically the correct thing to do, don’t go against the narrative. And the media have been shocking. The media have facilitated, have acted like the propaganda mouthpiece for the narrative that’s directed by Nphet and implemented by Government. And it’s not unique to Ireland, it’s happening everywhere and it’s just, I just find it scary. As a rational thinking person, I find it scary, do you not?

IK: The counter-argument when we loosened things in the run up to Christmas the rates went high again, and you talked about people being responsible. There was an awful lot of evidence of people acting irresponsibly around that period. 

PB: Let’s just look at what happened. We had the longest lockdown in Europe the first time around right. We then got down to the lowest numbers of infections per 100,000 in Europe. And then in the blink of an eye in three weeks we went to the highest, not just even in Europe but in the world. And now we’re heading back down again. You take a country like Sweden, which didn’t do a lockdown. They now claim that they have in the Stockholm region 45 per cent immunity and 40 per cent immunity in the rest of the country and they know that because they’ve done the antibody testing. They didn’t do any lockdown and their death rate is no worse, proportionately, than anywhere else and they’ve been pilloried by international media.

Taxing times

In 2010, Ryanair became aware that certain employees resident outside the State had lodged claims for, and received, repayment of PAYE income tax deductions from their salaries in respect of employment duties exercised outside the State. At the time, Ryanair indicated that circa 1,800 of its pilots were based on the continent and that if all of the employees were to receive refunds, the costs to the Irish State could run into the tens of millions.

A provision was introduced, Section 127B, which allowed a domestic tax charge to be applied to international aircrew who are residents of another state but are employed by an airline headquartered in the Irish state where the relevant double taxation agreement specifically allows for this charge.

Subsequent EU rules said employees should be taxed in their base country. However, Irish law still required them to be taxed here also. For both Ryanair and Cityjet, it meant that their employees were paying the same tax in two judications. CityJet says the issue is now costing it up to €12 million a year, and it is contesting the case through the appeals system.

“It was never really intended to do what they’re now trying to make it apply to do. And it is kind of crazy because in our situation, what they’re doing is they are levying an assessment on CityJet DAC in Dublin, for employees that we actually don’t have because they’re not our employees. They are employees of a subsidiary that we have in Denmark,” says Byrne. “We made an acquisition in Denmark and staff were there before that. We took that over. 

“They have always paid their tax and their social insurance in Denmark because that’s where they live and that’s where they work. And to say that because they’re now flying on Irish-registered aircraft instead of Danish-registered aircraft which they were before and the same type of aircraft, and to say that because our place of effective management is Dublin, that we CityJet, should pay income tax on their behalf and we should go to our staff in Denmark to say we’ve paid this to the Irish Government, you’ve now got to pay us back and then you go and take your chances with the Danish tax authority to see will they give you a credit – it is bizarre.

“Every EU company has got the right to establish a subsidiary in another jurisdiction within the Union. In our case we didn’t establish one, we acquired one. And because we changed the registration on the airplanes, we are into this double taxation thing. It’s sheer nonsense and it’s belligerence on the part of Revenue, they just won’t let it go. They will not let it go.”

Steering CityJet through examinership

Pay Byrne founded the airline in Dublin in the early 1990s and, under a franchise agreement with Virgin Atlantic Airways, it pioneered services between London City Airport and Dublin. In 1996, it formed a partnership with Air France, which ultimately resulted in the French carrier buying the business in 2000.

It became a key airline in the London City Market, while also connecting European cities to Air France’s Paris hub. It was expansionary, acquiring Belgian airline VLM, before it was sold to Intro Aviation in 2014. When Byrne returned to the business in March 2016 after assembling a consortium of investors, he quickly ceased direct scheduled operations, with the airline exclusively operating flights on behalf of other European airlines. The so-called wet lease market is massive in the US but underdeveloped in Europe. Byrne spotted an opportunity and went for it. 

Audited accounts for 2017 show revenues of €213 million and a surplus after tax of €23.8 million. It had positive net assets of €4.3 million. That was the high point. The following year, revenues were €222.5 million, but it reported a deficit after tax of €146 million, leaving negative net assets of €141 million.

Unaudited accounts for 2019 submitted as part of the examinership application show it had revenues of €226 million and a deficit of €22 million. By the end of 2019, it had negative net assets of €163 million. Byrne was working on restructuring the balance sheet with his main backer, the private equity firm Fortress. Covid-19, however, forced the company to the courts. 

Of the €554 million debt mountain accrued by the Irish-based airline, some €500 million was written off by creditors as part of the examinership, although much of this will be in a phased basis over the next ten to 15 years.

Its fleet of planes, for example, will fall from 32 to 17, while overall staff number across its international business will reduce from 1,175 to 370.

Pat Byrne: “I think the regional jet is going to become the tactical weapon that’s going to get things moving again.” Photo: Bryan Meade

IK: You were one of the first airlines to go in for the restructuring. The decision to trigger the examinership, I mean, was it a tough one? 

PB: It was a very challenging process but I suppose going back to the psyche of it and that rationale for it at the time – and I think you wrote something at the time about us – we had had a number of issues with the business. We had expanded quite quickly. We had a number of diverse problems including with our Russian aircraft fleet. 

And some acquisitions that we had made in the Nordics. But we were in talks with Air Nostrum on a merger that we had got permission from the EU to proceed with. And we had been talking with our various stakeholders about restructuring on a voluntary basis. We were having very good talks with all of our key stakeholders on that. But then the pandemic hit, as violently and as suddenly as it did. And suddenly out of five wet lease contracts that we had we were left with only one. That was a fairly terrifying realisation that this is not going to be a two- or three-week wonder. When your airline customers invoke force majeure you know you’re left high and dry, you’re left on your own. Like the floor was taken out from underneath you. 

So, what do you do? We immediately looked at the option of examinership and was it the right thing to do? And we didn’t come to the decision quickly. It probably took us a number of weeks to come to the decision that it was the right thing to do. I mean, we obviously consulted with our shareholders; as a board took, we took our responsibilities very seriously. Was this the thing that we were going to do? You have absolutely no guarantee that you’re going to be successful with it either. There’s no certainty in it. You can make an assessment and we did make the assessment and we came to the conclusion that it was in the best interest of all the stakeholders and the future viability of a smaller business to go into examinership. 

Once you take the decision, then your focus shifts to the enormity of the work that you have to do through the examinership. It’s all hands on deck because it’s a really difficult process to get through, because it’s a huge amount of fiscal engineering or reengineering that you actually have to do with your business and it’s a lot of negotiation. And keeping people informed and you’re never, ever, ever sure that you’re going to get out the other end. You hope that you are but you’re never sure. And you won’t know until the very end. So, yeah, it was tough but I was absolutely certain that it was the right thing to do. I was confident that we would get through it. But I wasn’t cocky about getting through it. I knew that a number of things could blow us up and we wouldn’t get through it. 

IK: In terms of CityJet post-examinership, it’s obviously smaller, the fleet size is down, the staff numbers are down. But what’s the strategic plan for it going forward?

PB: Yeah. Well, our model as you know and you wrote about it before, our model is the wet lease model and we got out of what we call own-brand, own-risk schedule flying. We got out of that in 2018 finally. So, we’re exclusively a wet lease provider. Our model is to pick up with SAS, and they have been a phenomenal partner right though all of this and a really fantastic partner. I think we’ve each found what we’re made of. We’ve got a mutual sort of dependency on each other because we’re a huge part of their regional network. And what it means for them to be able to do that and they’re very important to us. So, we’ll get back to, hopefully, a minimum of 15 aircraft flying with SAS on wet lease. We will be looking for other wet lease opportunities in Europe. I think they are not as obvious as they may have been before because I think that a number of the legacy carriers that have survived the whole thing do have their own in-house regional airlines and they may look to using them before they’d use someone like us. 

However, I do think there will be some opportunities for those big carriers because I think the size of aircraft that we fly, the Bombardier CRJ900 has 90 seats. I think when markets start to recover, I think the regional jet is going to become the tactical weapon that’s going to get things moving again. Even when we were up to the 10 aircraft that we got up to with SAS in the last couple of months, and now we’re back to three flying, we found we were actually flying on routes that normally would have something bigger on because the loads just weren’t there, the density wasn’t there. We look to North America and we see that CRJ900s and Embraer 175s are the aircraft that are in the air the most now because that’s what’s happening in the US as well. So, as the market recovers, you’ll find less people flying, therefore the airline needs to get its trip cost down. That’s, I think, where we will score and I think there will be opportunities for us with airlines beyond SAS for our type of operation. 

The other thing we’re going to look at is, as one of the last men standing in regional aviation, we’re going to look for opportunity to consolidate with others and we still have our planned merger with Air Nostrum on the backburner. That’s going to have to wait for a couple of years because they’ve had to attend to their own survival as well. They’ve been hit very, very hard. We’re still talking to each other, very much so. But we know that it’s probably a couple of years away before we can resume that transaction. Meanwhile, we’re going to look at other potential opportunities of consolidation. 

As well as wet lease, we would look at franchise or quasi-franchise opportunities where it might be a hybrid, where there might be some risk-sharing. We might have to take some risk on the scheduled flying with the franchiser or it could even be just a straightforward franchising relationship where we’re satisfied that the brand that we’re flying for is strong and the routes make sense. So, we have to find a way, one way or the other, to get our critical mass back up you know, closer to 30 aircraft to have a successful business. We don’t want to stay down at the 15-20 size aircraft. We need to get back to scale. We were mid-30s in aircraft numbers before all of this. We’ve got to get back to that kind of scale. So, let’s do it carefully. We have to risk-assess everything we’re going to do. But I think it’ll be a combination of wet lease and franchise and maybe even hybrid franchise. That I think is going to be the way back for us. 

IK: Is there a point that doing the examinership early and right-sizing the balance sheet has probably left you much better cushioned for dealing with having no planes, but also to get back into that expansionary mode?

PB: I think taking the decision early was good. And I think we knew that at the time. We said if we’re going to do this, we need to do it now. You could hang on and you can wait and see how bad is this going to get, how bad is the crisis going to get and you’re literally burning up valuable runway because you will run out of time and you will run out of manoeuvring, I suppose space really would run out. So, I think yeah, it has benefitted us on the basis that we’ve cleaned up the balance sheet and a lot of people have had to take a lot of pain to do that. A lot of people have lost their jobs, which is terrible and stakeholders have been burnt and have taken a huge amount of pain. But we do have a clean balance sheet and that puts us in a strong position to, you know, exploit… not exploit but when opportunities arise now in the recovery, we’re probably in pretty good shape to be able to go for those opportunities and build the business back.

Pay Byrne’s advice to people setting up a business

“Talk to more people before you do it. I think you’ve got to surround yourself with good people and people who are smarter than you are and people that know more about the subject matter than you do. I think you have to listen and take counsel before you make decisions. So, I would say to any young people going into business, surround yourself with good people and get yourself a mentor or two if you can. The other thing I think I’d say to them is don’t have blind faith in the business plan. It’s the wild west because when the first shot is fired in any battle, the plan goes out the window and then it becomes survival. But not random survival. Don’t be wedded to the business plan too much but the one thing I’d say to them is never, ever lose sight of the destination.”

Reflections on a career in the air

Before our interview, I had asked Pat Byrne to identify a couple of defining moments in his career; sliding doors moments that had a profound impact upon him and his business. Clippings from newspapers and trade magazines had thrown up a massive number of articles about CityJet but much less about Byrne personally (other than the fact his sons Ross and Harry are professional rugby players). 

“A lot of people think I’ve been in airlines forever, I wasn’t, you know. I was in financial services,” he says. “So, I would say that a defining moment for me really was when I designed a scheme for teachers when I was in savings and investments, in what is now Cornmarket.

“So, we designed a range of products for them. I think that was a huge defining moment for me being able to get a scheme like that off the ground and get it universally accepted around the country. I was like a showband singer at the time going around and doing presentations and then opening seven branch offices around Ireland, that was a defining moment. The next one I suppose was starting an airline, which was kind of a mad thing to do because I didn’t know anything about airlines – and some people might say he still doesn’t.”

What prompted the decision to set it up? “I came out of the financial business; I had done very well coming out of that. I was looking for something else to do because I was still relatively young, I was only in my mid-30s and so I was looking for something to do. I’d always been interested in aviation. I had my own aeroplane; I’d been a pilot for quite a while and the aviation business kind of fascinated me,” he says.

“What caught my eye was London City airport and I just couldn’t understand why nobody was flying there from Dublin and I just thought that there was a unique niche there. So, I approached British Aerospace and they said, ‘Well look, we’ve got a great idea, why don’t we use you as our ambassador in Dublin because we’re trying to sell the British Aerospace 146’, at the time, to Aer Lingus to get them to fly into London City airport. So, I said, ‘Yeah okay, I’ll try and do that for you’, and I went to Aer Lingus and I remember it so well, my meeting lasted about 50 minutes and I was summarily dismissed and the whole idea was rubbished and no, it’ll never catch on, crazy idea, not for us. 

“And I went back to British Aerospace and I said, ‘You know what, I think I’ll do this myself’. And they said, ‘But what do you know about it?’ ‘Not a lot but’, I said, ‘you’re going to teach me something and I’m going to find people that know more about it than I do’. And I literally walked into what then was the Department of Transport before the Irish Aviation Authority existed and I literally went in and said, ‘What do you have to do to get an aircraft operators licence?’, and I came out with 15 ring binders of stuff and found people who were good at writing manuals and knew an awful lot more about it than I did and we applied for our licence and I then set about raising money. 

“I put seed capital in myself, but I raised money from privates and from institutions – at a difficult time, because it was just after the GPA story. GPA had just gone south and it was a hard time to raise money for an airline, a new airline. And then I went to Branson and I said, ‘Look, I need a recognisable brand, can I rent your brand?’, and developed a bit of a relationship with him and he eventually said yes. His management said no but he said yes, that was the important thing, he said yes. And that’s how it got going because I really, absolutely believed in the product of London City airport. But it wasn’t an overnight success. It took quite a while for it to catch on but it was, it became an incredibly popular service. That’s what got me into it. 

“I suppose I was just driven by the idea and I wanted to build an airline that people would really love to fly and be in the service industry.”

Are you glad you took that decision? “I don’t want to be defeatist about this and I don’t want people in business to be defeatist. We’re all under the cosh. I think that we’ve been very poorly served by our governments. Fear has been used as the weapon to try and contain us. I would like to think that businesspeople in particular will not lose their enthusiasm for recovery. That we have to build our businesses back but we have to build our society. And I think we have to be very, very vigilant and I think we have to be very strong,” he says.  

“But I think it’s going to come from the small to medium-sized business people because Ireland is utterly dependent on that indigenous backbone. Globals, the big globals are important, fantastic employment and all of that and terrific and they’re tremendously important to our economy. But the soul of our economy is the small to medium-sized business. They’re the people that we need to nurture and encourage and help because that’s the engine that’s going to get the society and the community functioning properly again.”