Valerian Ho reveals how Ireland’s Shannon airport transformed the flying experience with the invention of duty-free shopping.

Those who like to stock up on tax-free gifts at the airport owe thanks to one Brendan O’Regan – the Irishman who launched the first duty-free store at Shannon in 1947.

Spotting a chance to generate revenue in this gateway between the US and Europe, catering comptroller O’Regan convinced the Irish government to pass the Customs Free Airport Act, which stated that transit and embarking passengers, goods and aircraft were exempt from normal customs and excise procedures. The Department of Transport then licensed Shannon to conduct commercial and catering activities.

O’Regan duly opened the world’s first duty-free shop. Run by local woman Kitty Downes, the simple kiosk measured only a few square metres and sold Irish goods and souvenirs.

In 1951, the first Airport Duty-Free Liquor Shop opened. Originally, it was solely for airline stewards to purchase alcohol and tobacco for resale to customers on board. Later, passengers were allowed to buy goods directly at tax-free prices on a restricted basis. The concept was a huge success and was copied the world over.