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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 January 2006, 22:21 GMT
US soldiers boost Irish airport sales

By Guto Harri
BBC North America business correspondent

Green, damp and tranquil, the west coast of Ireland is not somewhere you would expect to find American soldiers in desert uniform.

US soldier dressed as Father Christmas
US soldiers returning home for Christmas boost airport business

But flying through Shannon airport in County Clare over Christmas, I found the departure lounge crowded with GIs.

Most were sipping coffee, some sampled the Guinness.

Trade was brisk in the duty-free store, and there were queues for the public telephones as their plane refuelled on the runway.

Brisk business

These men and women had just finished their tour in Iraq.

They had flown from the sand and harsh desert sun into the green fields and mystical light of the Shannon estuary.

It was clearly and understandably a culture shock.

Young, clean-shaven, with short hair and neatly-pressed twin-tone fatigues, these brown and beige figures dominated the scene.

We don't reveal the commercial value of this business
Eugene Pratt
Shannon International Airport

And, as I've since discovered, this is a familiar sight.

More than 300,000 American soldiers have flown home via Shannon in 2005.

That is twice the number who passed through in 2004, and that was much higher than the previous year when the Iraqi invasion took place.

"I don't approve of it," says one local, returning home. Even officials agree that there has been much controversy in Ireland.

But the bartender at the Clare Cafe seems to appreciate the trade, and one shop assistant in the duty-free explains that "some of them are quite nice".

Cash-starved airport

The airport authorities are coy.

"We don't reveal the commercial value of this business," says external relations manager Eugene Pratt.

"But you can take it that it is substantial when aeronautical charges, in-flight catering, ground handling, duty free and ground catering sales, as well as fuel sales are tallied."

The Irish Examiner has come up with a figure.

It says Shannon has received more than 27m euros ($32.5m; 18.6m) from the US government in 2005 alone.

That is useful revenue for an airport with a total turnover of only 95m euros last year.

"The revenue generated from the commercial liners carrying troops is very welcome for a cash-starved airport", says Pat Breen, the Fine Gael Deputy for County Clare.

"Shannon has to spend 70m euros on airport infrastructure over the next number of years and in deals struck with the likes of Ryanair, it is not going to generate those kind of revenues."

A long way home

One wonders whether some of the troops would like to step outside and drive along the magical coastline of the Emerald Isle, booking into B&Bs, strolling along empty beaches with their hair blowing in the wind, cosying up to a peat fire in a cosy pub.

One or two might have Irish roots to check out.

However valuable to the airport, this for them is just a short stop on the way home.

One says, "It's a long trip," but after months in Iraq, she can't wait to get back on the plane and head out west across the Atlantic.

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