Over 1.5 million people pass through Ireland’s Shannon Airport each year – an impressive figure. What many of them don’t realize is just how steeped in history the airport is.

In the 1940s, Shannon became home to the world’s first duty free shops and was also the first duty free industrial zone. Foynes, the smaller air boat airport Shannon replaced, is widely credited as the birthplace of the Irish coffee. Maureen O’Hara’s husband, the pilot and airline president Charles Blair, Jr. was the first commercial pilot to fly into Shannon. More recently, in 2013, Shannon made the unprecedented move of breaking away from Ireland’s larger airport body, the Dublin Airport Authority, which runs Dublin and Cork Airports, and became independently operated.

And, this month, Shannon is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the first commercial transatlantic flight into not just Ireland, but all of Europe.

It happened on Wednesday, October 24, 1945. American Airlines’ flagship plane “London” had departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport the previous evening, made a brief stop at Gander in Newfoundland, and set a course for history as it crossed the Atlantic to Ireland. The journey took eight and a half hours, with the plane landing on Wednesday at 3:30 pm local time at Shannon. At that time the airport was still called Rineanna, from the Irish “meeting place of the birds.”

Executives from the Shannon Group, which incorporates Shannon Airport, Shannon Commercial Properties, Ireland’s International Aviation Services Center, and Shannon Heritage (which owns Bunratty Castle and is developing Dublin’s GPO visitor experience for the 1916 centenary), were in Chicago this week for a US celebration of Shannon’s transatlantic milestone.

In addition to meeting with key travel industry partners, visiting Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, the Shannon team also met with United Airlines, which is headquartered in Chicago, to discuss the expansion of United’s Chicago – Shannon route. United has been flying into Shannon for 17 years.

Currently the Chicago – Shannon route is a seasonal operation, running from May to September, but those traveling between Ireland and the Midwestern states may soon have reason to celebrate if the route expands to be year-round.

Before a Shannon Group dinner at The Gage restaurant on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, which included speeches by Shannon’s chair Rose Hynes, CEO Neil Pakey, United’s Amos Khim, managing director of specialty sales, and a performance by virtuoso violinist Gregory Harrington, IrishCentral sat down to talk with Pakey and Andrew Murphy, Shannon’s chief commercial officer.

Here they explain what the transatlantic milestone means, how Shannon aims to continue its growth, and why people visiting Ireland should chose Shannon as their point of entry.

What does this 70th anniversary milestone mean for Shannon?

Neil Pakey, CEO: Well, it’s our 70th anniversary of transatlantic flying. Shannon was the first airport in Europe to enjoy transatlantic flying so it’s quite a milestone really for us to be celebrating. And it’s doubled up with a celebration of 17 years of United flying into Shannon, so this week we’ve been working closely with United, trying to build their service to New York and to Chicago.

Why mark the occasion in Chicago?

Andrew Murphy, CCO: Well we’ve been celebrating all year! But Chicago was important to us because United have been having a very good year into Shannon, but it’s a seasonal flight so we’d like to talk to them about whether can we extend the seasons a little bit. So in part, we’re having a celebratory party with them, meeting all the travel agents and businesses that use the routes, and in part we’ve got a message as well: that we can’t wait to see a bit more capacity and to ask if United are in a place where the can think about that for us.

There’s so much history wrapped up in Shannon Airport. Does nostalgia for this play into your marketing strategy at all?

AM: It does [play in to our strategy]. We were the world’s first Duty Free as well, so this year we re-branded back to Shannon Duty Free, we’ve done a big refurbishment, so that’s very much a nod to our history, that we were the first Duty Free, established in 1947. So nostalgia is a very important part and it inspires us to strive on and to be successful in the future, but we have to, as a commercial business, think about the present and the future, we have to have a keen eye on the future.

How has the partnership with United grown since it first started?

NP: Good. They have two services – Newark, which is year-round, it’s daily, and then Chicago, which operates from May to the middle of September. So they’ll carry about 100,000 passengers, but they’re one of six transatlantic flights we have every day, particularly in the summer. They’re a really important relationship and we’d love to grow it more. They’re a great brand and they’ve got great services.

What has been the key strategy for growth since Shannon went independent in 2013?

NP: When the independence was granted to Shannon we got a new management team plus new ideas. Before this, Shannon had suffered a few years of decline and decreased traffic. So with the new board and management team, getting a little bit of confidence back, we looked at the market in terms of what we could turn around quickly, and that’s when the new Chicago route started, as one of the new services, so we saw the transatlantic market as being an opportunity to turn things around, as well as the European market, with Aer Lingus and Ryanair coming back and doing more business with Shannon. Then it was foot on the pedal in terms of trying to get the confidence up, the awareness up, the belief back, the brand built. We’ve been full on in terms of marketing ever since.

Are there other aspects to this growth that your average traveler wouldn’t think about ?

AM: There are other assets, we try and maximize the runway with other aspects to our business such as cargo, an awful lot of general aviation, such as private jets, coming in and out, stopping for fuel, and we have other technical transit operators coming in to the facility. Equally, just from a commercial perspective, we’ve grown Duty Free, we’re trying to grow other parts of the business, and that’s very much a trend in airports where airlines are challenging airports to get their cost base down and we’ve increased other revenues. Next year we’re hoping to keep that level of growth there.

NP: Some of the property aspects of the business are very important to Shannon. As well as being the first Duty Free shop in the world it was the first free zone in the world, much copied since, over in Asia for example. But as the first free zone, we had about 2,000 acres of land there, lots of big American firms – Zimmer and Intel, etc. – all situated in Shannon. That combined with the aerospace industry – you know, we have nine hangars there and 50 firms in aviation related to that activity. It’s also the home of aircraft leasing, so half the world’s aircraft leasing is done through Ireland and Shannon is a big part of that.

What are the shorter term goals for Shannon, and where could you see things heading in the next 70 years?

AM: The short term is to continue the momentum that we’ve had. We’re going to do some refurbishment work on the airport in the next 12 months and that will enhance the passenger experience even more. One of the things we pride ourselves on is that it’s very simple for passengers to come through the airport – both traveling to the US, with US pre-clearance, you can do all of that at Shannon, but equally for passengers arriving.

For Irish Americans, when they arrive, to get into a rental car in a big city like Dublin can be a bit of a challenge, not to mention that you’re driving on the wrong side of the road. At Shannon it’s pretty straight forward; it’s much easier. So I think from that perspective, to continue to push that convenience, that simplicity for passengers as a unique selling point for us.

The next 70 years? Who knows. We’re built on a history of innovation, a lot of firsts, so we’re trying to challenge ourselves as a team to come up with the next ‘first.’ That’s not always straightforward and it takes a bit of risk and a bit of a gamble, but so far we’re enjoying that.

NP: We do have a vision and longer term plans, but the short term is probably more important because we know that only by making the most of some of the short term opportunities will we be able to make the most out of them for the longer term.

Some of the shorter term opportunities are around questioning why people wouldn’t fly into Shannon when half of the bed nights from overseas are in the west of Ireland. We are the logical airport for service for all of these tourists. There are so many who come in through Dublin and then wind up on a bus every day. Challenging those things and making sure that the airlines and the operators know that they can come through Shannon, I think everybody is happier.

Are there plans to add more transatlantic routes?

AM: We’re ambitious and there are always plans, but a lot of the choice is made by the airline so our job is to market ourselves in the best light to show them that the market demand is there for more flights. We’ve been working on something now for about two years time, and part of our mission with this trip is to talk to United and see if they’ll buy into that.

NP: Sometimes it’s about a new route, sometimes it’s about extending the seasons, and sometimes it’s about larger aircraft. So we were very pleased that Delta have announced larger aircraft for next year, which gives us 25% extra seats. That’s terrific. It’s a good result.

How big of an impact does Shannon Airport have on the Shannon region?

NP: It has a massive impact on the region. We’re presently doing a study on economic impact. Tourism Ireland did some studies on the spend per passenger – where they spend money, how many nights they stay, etc. So we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy. We’re going to finalize the figures on that through good academic research, though we do know the contribution is massive.

When was the first time you traveled through Shannon?

AM: I’ve lived in Shannon all my life, so it was probably very early for me. Three-years-old, I’d say. My father was an air traffic controller as well, so Shannon is it. It’s great to be working here now.

NP: The first time I flew in was in the mid-1990s. I was actually working at the time with Manchester Airport, and I brought a team in from Manchester to play the European Airport Football finals. We did well until Shannon decided to take us out on the tear!

What would you say to someone planning a trip to Ireland and trying to decide if they should go through Shannon or Dublin? Why choose Shannon?

NP: It depends on what they want from their vacation. If they want to spend their whole vacation in a large city, Dublin’s the place for it. But most people coming to Ireland don’t really want that – they want to see the real Ireland. They want to have the simple things – a pint of Guinness in a local Irish pub, they want to see the Cliffs of Moher and experience the Wild Atlantic Way, they want to visit the smaller Irish villages. Most people want to spend their time enjoying the experience of the real Ireland and I think Shannon makes a more compelling offer.

AM: What Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland have done in terms of the Wild Atlantic Way is a fantastic badge to put on the area. From car companies in Shannon, they’re saying that more people than ever are requesting cars for self-drive holidays. You can be from our door [at Shannon] to the west coast in 30 minutes, reasonably, which means people will be able to start their vacation sooner.

NP: The towns we have on our doorstep – Killarney, Galway, etc. – they’re fantastic places to visit. The Ennis Fleadh next year will generate hundreds of thousands of people to the region. And if you do want to see Dublin, you can always do a day trip from Shannon.

AM: From our tourism research, we know that people want more, and if you stack Ireland up against other tourist destinations, we have to compete on both national and international stages.

NP: Another thing the tourists enjoy is the friendliness. Dublin is a city, and I won’t say it’s not friendly, but just by nature of its being a city, it can sometimes feel a little less friendly than a smaller Irish community. I mean, I’m a tourist as well, I’m Scottish, and when I tour the [Shannon] region you can’t not be bowled over by the warm friendliness of the people. And I think you get that in the west even more so.

AM: The reality is that customers have choices, but we like to think that if they choose Shannon they’re doing it for the right reasons. We’d be delighted to welcome them.

NP: Aviation used to be a very glamorous industry. It still is, but not as much now, and Shannon is lucky because there’s still some of that coming through. Our aim is to return it to its former glory, in a modern way. For one, Shannon duty free will soon have an online portal at Shannondutyfree.com

Thank you, Neil and Andrew.

For more information about Shannon Airport, visit shannonairport.ie.