Dublin-SFO route is a natural, airline's CEO says; Aer Lingus starts with 4 weekly flights between IT centers of U.S. and Europe

This year, Aer Lingus, the airline of Ireland, was permitted to start flying to three U.S. cities ahead of other European Union airlines, according to the terms of newly liberalized agreements between the United States and European nations.

San Francisco was Aer Lingus' first choice, followed by Orlando and Washington. Flights between San Francisco and Dublin - on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday - began Sunday. There will be seven-days-a-week service beginning March 28. Dermot Mannion, Aer Lingus' chief executive officer, sat down with Chronicle staff writer George Raine while here for the inaugural flight. The interview has been edited for space and clarity:

Q:San Francisco has been wanting Aer Lingus service for five years, and you said San Francisco "jumps off the page" of cities you have wanted to serve. Why did it take that long?

A: Until March, we were restrained by a very restrictive bilateral agreement between Ireland and the United States, which restricted Aer Lingus to operate in only four designated cities - New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. It was the way it was always done. Now, all of those bilateral agreements between the U.S. and individual countries in Europe are swept away by a new accord called Open Skies. Open Skies was announced in March of 2007 and while full Open Skies do not kick in for the other European carriers until March of 2008, Aer Lingus and Ireland was able to stake our claim in the U.S. earlier than the others and begin service this year, and we are taking full advantage of that.

Q:What makes San Francisco-Dublin such a desirable route?

A: In many ways the parallels between Dublin and San Francisco are quite marked. San Francisco and the Bay Area is the IT capital of North America, possibly the world, and there is no doubt, in European terms, Ireland and Dublin in particular is the capital of the IT world in Europe.

Q:How was the decision to begin daily service between the two cities made?

A: One of the things I learned early on Mannion joined Aer Lingus in 2005 after director- and president-level assignments with Emirates Airlines in Dubai was that if a route is worth flying then it is worth moving to a daily frequency as quickly as you can. That is the way to make a profit. To be relevant with business travelers, you must be daily.

Q:Ireland's economic growth, at 14 percent, has led the European nations for several years. That's quite a turnaround. Is it a shock to the system?

A: The story in the 1970s was that when the Irish economy was doing very badly and immigration was at its height, they used to joke that the difference between the U.S. and Ireland was that the U.S. has Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Stevie Wonder. In Ireland, we had no cash, no hope and it's no wonder. Those days are absolutely gone. Clearly, Aer Lingus has taken advantage of Ireland having the highest growth-rate economy. We make no apology for doing so.

Q:What is your relationship with Ryanair, Europe's original low-fare airline?

A: They own 30 percent of our shares, at the moment. They launched a hostile takeover for Aer Lingus last year, which I am happy to say we defeated. And we are hoping that over time, because of the competitive strains between the organizations, they will have to reduce their shareholding because we don't think it's healthy for one major competitor to have 30 percent.

Q:You hear the term Celtic Tiger, for the rapid period of growth in Ireland. What does it mean to you?

A: Ireland has become a very attractive gateway into Europe and the European Union, especially given that it is English-speaking, educational standards are very high, 36 percent of the population is under 25, 40 percent of young people are college graduates. I think one of Ireland's greatest strengths over the past 20 years is that, even when the country was not enjoying the relative prosperity that it is now, the government continued to make significant investments in education. Both the government and parents in Ireland make real sacrifices to ensure their children get the best education possible.

Q:Does change threaten Ireland?

A: There would be a view that with economic growth and prosperity there comes a certain sophistication which some might say is the antithesis of traditional Ireland, Irish values. I think Ireland is a society in transition and one of the challenges facing Ireland is to take advantage of what economic prosperity can bring, but be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose that unique personal touch that prevails.

"To be relevant with business travelers, you must be daily."

Dermot Mannion Aer Lingus CEO