Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Friday, 24 July 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Covid-19: Impact on International Travel
I welcome our witnesses on the impact of Covid-19 on international travel in committee room 2. From the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, we have Mr. Evan Cullen, president, and Captain Alan Brereton, vice-president; and from SIPTU we have Mr. Neil McGowan, aviation sector organiser, and Ms Karan O'Loughlin, aviation divisional organiser.
I advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I ask Mr. Cullen to introduce his delegation and make a short comment outlining the key points of his submission to the committee, which has been circulated. I ask him to limit his introduction and comments to five minutes to allow time for questions and answers.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to meet the special committee. Matters have moved on considerably since we made our written submission in May. For this reason, we made a supplementary submission this morning. That submission was drafted with the knowledge of the stimulus plan announced yesterday. The package announced by the Government does nothing to address the concerns we have regarding the aviation industry in Ireland and the impact on workers in aviation in Ireland.
In our original written submission, we called for the Government to comply with and enact policies which were in line and consistent with the recommendations and guidance of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA. That has not occurred. The Government has not adhered to the European guidelines and Ireland is an outlier with regard to its restrictions on travel and the imposition of the so-called green list. The green list is not aligned with EU health advice. The Government has put the Canary Islands in the same category as Spain on the green list. The Canary Islands are roughly the same distance from Spain as Scotland is from Iceland. There is no public health or scientific logic to the Canary Islands being lumped in with Spain.
Testing and contact tracing, which is the gold standard, is not in place at our airports but it should be. The nonsense relating to the travel ban is tested by Belfast. Belfast city and Belfast International Airport have access to 59 countries, as opposed to Dublin having access to 15. Ireland is, in effect, closed for business. That said, we respect the Government's decision to undermine and take out the Irish aviation industry and we are now close to the point of no return. The damage that is being done to the industry is near irreparable. We have had one casualty so far. One airline has gone into examinership and has made redundant virtually all of its operational staff in Dublin. It has started rehiring staff in Denmark because Denmark has pro-employment legislation whereas we have pro-redundancy legislation. Airline operations have all but ceased. Thousands of highly skilled, high-paid people in the industry are looking at mortgage foreclosure in the new year. A loss of circa €8.9 billion of GDP is directly attributable to air transport, along with the loss of 8.8 million tourists, and the loss of cargo and connectivity with 140,000 employed in the sector, directly and indirectly.
Aer Lingus has laid off effectively half their staff and the rest are on half pay, much of which is subsidised by the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. Ryanair has a headline of 20% pay cut but, in effect, the pay cuts are far more drastic than that. All of Stobart Air's employees are living on social welfare and CityJet, as I mentioned, have made redundant all its crews in Dublin and commenced recruitment in Denmark. We know that CityJet and Stobart Air applied for assistance from the Government. We have not seen the reply but we believe nothing has been offered by the Government.
Ireland is an outlier in terms of travel restrictions and in its refusal to give assistance to the industry aside from the TWSS, which every other country is doing. In my supplementary submission, I set out all of the assistance that European governments have given to airlines on top of the equivalent of the TWSS. It is important to note that €30 billion in state support has been granted to European airlines. Ireland has contributed zero of that €30 billion. In the UK, British Airways, BA, received a £300 million credit facility on top of the equivalent of TWSS. The UK Government has given both Ryanair and EasyJet a £600 million credit facility. Spain, the home of Iberia and Vueling, has given a €1 billion state-backed loan on the provision of no redundancies. The Netherlands has given €3 billion to KLM, France has given €7 billion to Air France while Germany has given Lufthansa €9 billion in assistance. Aer Lingus has not received a cent from the Government. While we have the most restrictive travel policy, we have also had the least generous response - if not zero generosity - from the Government to assist us in this crisis.
Aer Lingus is one of a number of airlines that is wholly owned by International Airlines Group, IAG, which is registered in Spain but headquartered in London. BA, Iberia and Vueling are others in the group but there are also smaller airlines in IAG. Most of these operate under the brand of LEVEL, but one is Anisec, which is LEVEL in Austria. That has filed for bankruptcy and we understand it is being liquidated. OpenSkies in France, a small airline operating under the LEVEL brand-----
Mr. Evan Cullen:
In short, it is our contention that as IAG retreats in the face of this crisis it is liquidating the smaller airlines in order to save its pillar airlines. Those are British Airways, BA, which the British Government will back and Iberia which the Spanish Government will absolutely back. Unfortunately Ireland does not back Aer Lingus with any assistance other than the temporary wage subsidy scheme, which every other western EU country has done. We are asking for the Government to step up to the plate and take off the handcuffs. Both of our hands are very firmly handcuffed and we have been thrown into the river because the Government is telling people not to travel and at the same time it will not assist the very airlines that need travel in order to survive. This is absolutely an emergency. We believe things are almost at the point of no return and in the new year when this economy needs an airline industry to restart its connectivity and its economy there will not be one to bring back. To give one example, almost every pilot in Ireland has lost their pilot's licence.
I thank Mr. Cullen for his opening remarks and his very stark warning.
I ask Mr. Neil McGowan from SIPTU to make his opening remarks. SIPTU's opening statement has been circulated to members. As such I request that Mr. McGowan introduce those who are here with him and confine his opening remarks to five minutes, to allow as much time as possible for questions and answers.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
I am joined by Ms Karan O’Loughlin who is the divisional organiser in SIPTU for the transport, energy, aviation and construction division.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented and crippling impact on the aviation sector and the workers who rely on the industry to earn a living. Flights and passenger numbers have collapsed and are between 90% to 99% down on what one would expect. Even with the assistance of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, workers in aviation have suffered a cut in wages ranging from 20% to 70%. Hundreds of aviation workers are on temporary layoff and are relying solely on State supports. The outlook for the aviation sector in the short to medium term is bleak. Any possibility of summer green shoots have failed to materialise and workers are now facing into a long winter. Despite a dramatic drop in earnings, workers in aviation continued to keep essential supply chains going through the darkest days of the pandemic. SIPTU members in the airlines, ground handlers and airport workers played a critical front-line role in keeping our airports open for essential deliveries of PPE and medical supplies.
In order to ensure Ireland has an aviation industry post-Covid-19 a number of actions need to be immediately taken by the Government. SIPTU recommends the extension of the TWSS for the aviation sector until summer 2021 to ensure that employment is maintained in the industry. The extension of the TWSS must be made conditional on several binding commitments from the employers. These include no worker being made redundant on a compulsory basis while the employer is benefiting from the TWSS. This omission was a fatal error on the part of Government when the scheme was introduced given that these companies were benefiting from State support to keep people employed. The purpose of the scheme was to maintain the link between the employee and the employer so that when we came out the far end of the pandemic we would have an industry to try to build upon. The fact that employers can and have made people redundant on a compulsory basis is simply unacceptable. We are also seeking a binding commitment from employers that while the employer is benefiting from the TWSS no worker will suffer a permanent reduction in any terms and conditions of employment unless by collective agreement. We also ask that workers, where they wish, can make contributions to pension schemes while on the TWSS. Currently, workers are unable to make the employee contribution to their pension schemes from the TWSS. The longer this goes on, the more we will be storing up a pension problem. Many aviation workers have suffered dramatic cuts in their pensions over the last decade and have moved from defined-benefit schemes into defined-contribution schemes.
SIPTU recommends that Shannon Airport be returned to the management of the DAA. The separation of Shannon Airport has not been a success and this was apparent prior to the Covid crisis.
The Covid-19 crisis has brought into question the long-term viability of the airport. Given its absolute importance to the region's economy, we believe it must be brought back into the management of the DAA. When one compares the experience of Cork Airport with that of Shannon Airport since separation, it is quite stark that last year Cork was the fastest-growing airport in the country while Shannon has failed to progress and its viability is seriously in question at the moment.
SIPTU also recommends the introduction of a rapid testing facility for all airport workers. By the very nature of their work, airport workers are brought into close contact with people from across the world as they enter and leave the country. It is essential that a rapid testing facility be introduced in all the airports but particularly so in Dublin Airport in the short term. It is a serious deficit. We are calling for a review of the non-State airport sector, namely the regional airports such as Kerry Airport, Knock Airport and Donegal Airport. If the State is to give State aid to those airports then it should take an ownership share in them.
SIPTU believes the public health advice that continues to restrict international travel must be followed. Where, however, there is a corresponding impact on employment then the level of payment of the wage subsidy scheme should be established to ensure that workers' net take home pay is at a level that allows them to meet their financial obligations.
I thank Mr. McGowan. I have been asking about testing for months now; I hope he will have more luck than I have had to date.
Our first speaker is Deputy Colm Burke for Fine Gael, who is taking ten minutes.
I thank those who have come in this morning to make presentations and thank them also for the work they have done in dealing with their members over the past four months. It has been a very challenging time. When one sees figures like the 90% reduction in flights in and out it is a huge hit for everyone.
What number of people are coming through Dublin Airport on a daily basis at present? If we were to set up a testing system what kind of numbers would we have to be able to process in a timely manner? Likewise with the other airports, I would like to have an idea of the numbers that are physically coming through.
The second issue I have on testing is whether it is really worth doing when one considers that the number of flights coming in from Belfast and from a very much increased number of destinations is far higher. There is no restriction on people coming south and rightly so but the fact is we have no control over what is coming through Belfast. As such I am wondering how the people looking for testing in airports here think that fits in with what is happening through Belfast?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I beg the Deputy's pardon, that is 30,000 people per month. We are at less than 10% of the normal traffic flow for this time of year, that is the reality. In 2019 Dublin Airport handled circa 30 million passengers and we are now operating at less than 10% of that.
On testing, we believe it should be introduced at the airports for both arriving and departing travellers. On the basis of the scientific data we are satisfied that passenger-to-passenger does not occur. The ventilation systems on the aircraft are designed to deal with lots of viruses and diseases. The aircraft built by Boeing and Airbus are designed to be sold and operated all over the world where there are highly-transmissible and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Therefore the filters and air conditioning used are specifically designed to prevent passenger-to-passenger transmission.
That is why we urgently need rigorous testing at the airports both for departure and arrival. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked an interesting parliamentary question about the level of follow-up on the passenger locator forms. Deputy Burke will recall the answer showed it is nonsense. There is very low follow-up and very low data exchange on these. In what few follow-ups there were - I believe calls were made in approximately 7% of cases - there were subsequently no replies to the follow-up calls.
If Mr. Cullen is suggesting testing would take place in the airport there would obviously be a timeframe in which the test would take place and the results come back. What is the proposal regarding passengers who have come into the country and are awaiting results?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
There are tests that can be turned around in a number of hours and we do not see why passengers would not be asked to hold at the airport in various hotels until the results come back. We believe this is the only way to tackle this and reopen the economy and the aviation sector.
The other thing fundamental to all of this is why Ireland is an outlier in terms of its travel policy, restrictions on travel and refusal to assist the industry it is crippling with these restrictions.
If Mr. Cullen is asking people to hold on in hotels, or whatever accommodation, while they are waiting on tests, on any one day, what kind of numbers would he be asking to stay back until they got the results?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I will have to revert to the Deputy on a precise figure on what they are handling today. However, the reality is that if we have proper corridors then there would be no testing for those people who come on the green corridors from countries with levels of infection either equivalent to or less than the current Irish figure.
Do we have any idea of the numbers who are coming in from countries that are not on the green corridor at the minute? What kind of numbers per day are coming in? I am trying to find out whether it is possible to set up testing in the numbers we are talking about. What kind of numbers are we talking about who are not coming in through the green corridor?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
On a given day, one could have up to 9,000 people travelling through Dublin Airport at the minute. Regarding how many of those are coming from countries on the green list or not on the green list, we would not have those figures. However, if one takes Knock Airport as an example, on a given day, one could have anything up to 800 passengers using the airport and the majority of those passengers are flying on the UK routes.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
We believe it has lost anything up to €150 million since March and we do not believe it can sustain this for much longer. Other airlines are in a similar situation. Our estimates are that British Airways, BA, is burning in the region of £20 million per day. The difference with BA and Ryanair is that both have received significant assistance from the UK Government; Aer Lingus has received zero.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
Aer Lingus directly employs approximately 4,500 people but the wider knock-on effects are enormous. I refer the Deputy to the report of the aviation recovery task force that was set up by the former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. None of the key recommendation of that task force has been implemented by the Irish Government.
If it was a situation that we were able to deal with this problem and a vaccine was identified in the morning, what is Mr. McGowan's estimate regarding the timeframe when we could get back up to a normal running of business? How long would it take for both the airports and the airlines to recover the losses they have now suffered?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
I think if we had a vaccine in the morning, the airports and the airlines could get back up to running at full capacity in a very short period, but that is dependent on employees still being maintained in the airlines, airports and third-party handlers. There is a massive amount of employment in companies like Swissport International Limited, Menzies Aviation and Dnata that provide services to airports, and unless something dramatic happens and the State intervenes, we are looking at a tsunami of redundancies. The airlines, airports and third-party handlers will not have the capability to ramp up in the event a vaccine is developed and the demand for travel returns.
Belfast International Airport, which has flights coming in from a far larger number of destinations than Dublin, Cork, Shannon or any of the other airports. How would Mr. McGowan advise the Government on dealing with that challenge and how should we approach it from the point of view of the numbers coming in through Belfast who are free to travel throughout the Thirty-two Counties?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
We ask the Government to take seriously the recommendations of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, and ask for a co-ordinated response on based on what the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, and the ECDC are saying. If we had a co-ordinated approach across Europe, and Ireland was not the outlier in terms of restrictions and in its refusal to give assistance, we would be in a much better place than we are now.
With regard to getting the industry back, many pilots have now had their licences suspended. We are required, by law, to operate aircraft within fixed periods of time. Otherwise our licenses are suspended. One of the critical number of days one cannot fly is 90 days and an awful lot of pilots are now in that space. That means they require extra training of at least one day in the simulator and, perhaps, some training in the aircraft with no passengers. This all leads to a considerable amount of time and cost to get the aviation industry up and running again. One cannot switch it on and off like a light switch.
I thank the witnesses for coming in. The issue of international travel has probably been one of the most controversial issues I have dealt with as a public representative. Many different people have contacted me, some who work in the airline industry and are fearful for their jobs, others who have booked holidays and are looking at the financial impact of that on their households, and the third being people who are afraid of the virus coming to Ireland.
I will take the answers in reverse order. Will the witnesses address that issue of those who are afraid that increased international travel will result in Covid-19 spreading further in Ireland? The IALPA submission mentioned a figure of 2%, and the witnesses might expand on that in their response.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
The 2% comes from the International Air Transport Association, IATA. On the back of the final page of our submission we source and reference from where we get all of our data. We stand over that figure. There is no evidence of passenger to passenger transmission. I concede that it is possible that a person infected with the virus could bring it into the State but the science has proven that it is behaviour that leads to the transmission of the virus, not travel. We believe that with proper testing and tracing the industry can be sustained and properly policed. This needs to happen at the airports, with proper follow-up on the passenger locator information and so on.
The Taoiseach confirmed that 134,000 people travelled through Dublin Airport in July. The 2% figure relates to those people who contracted Covid-19 connected to travel at the source. If one applies 2% to the 134,000 it would lead us to have had a much greater spike than we have had. Would Mr. Cullen accept that the 134,000 who travelled through Dublin Airport have not resulted in a significant increase in Covid-19 cases in Ireland?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I agree that travel is not contributing to anything that has happened in the last few weeks with regard to the virus. The position of the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association, IALPA, is based on that of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. We are not taking any other position. We want to adopt in full the guidelines and recommendations from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the European Centre for Prevention and Disease Control. On Flight Radar, which shows aviation activity across Europe, Ireland is an outlier in that the only aircraft in the Irish airspace are overflying Ireland. Ireland is closed yet there is aviation activity across Europe.
In regard to those people who have booked holidays but are not able to or are reluctant to travel, the additional submission references the EU norms, specifically around the Canary Islands. I have been contacted this week by many people who believe the Canary Islands should be on the green list. I ask Mr. Cullen to speak to that point in the submission?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
We are very confused. It speaks to what we believe is a lack of understanding and indepth research into what the Government presented as a green list. The Canary Islands are thousands of miles from Spain. The performance rate there in terms of the virus is very different. They are as safe as, if not safer, than Ireland. We fail to understand why they did not make the green list. It points to a blunt instrument. It is a blunt Goverment policy rather than an informed nuanced and educated Government policy. That is the problem.
My final question is for SIPTU. I am very aware of the lack of flights because most of them fly over the Dublin North West constituency. They also fly over many of the homes of people who work in Dublin Airport. I ask SIPTU to speak to us on the voluntary redundancy programme and if it has any fears that it may become compulsory.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
A DAA voluntary redundancy scheme was made available to the staff. People had to express an interest by 17 June. We believe that there has been sufficient interest in it for the DAA to achieve the reduction in numbers it is seeking. We are engaged in discussions with the DAA on facilitating the exit of those people who wish to exit the company.
On the other employers, we have a very real fear that compulsory redundancy is a likelihood in the short term. Aer Lingus has not engaged with us to date on the 30-day consultation period regarding redundancies despite having informed the Minister a number of weeks ago that it is seeking up to 500 redundancies, which includes approximately 270 in the area SIPTU represents. We have a serious concern around Swissport, which employs 800 people across Dublin, Cork and Shannon Airports. In the UK, it announced that 52% of its staff would be made redundant.
There has been no announcement yet in regard to the Irish operations but that is a very real concern. That applies across the board with the third party handlers. There has been very little real engagement with the trade unions. While some of them have indicated they are prepared to offer voluntary schemes, when those negotiations pan out it becomes very clear that the schemes that the companies are offering are not voluntary because they refer to statutory redundancy and there is no negotiation in regard to selection criteria, etc. Within the DAA we are in a space where we believe there is sufficient interest in the voluntary severance scheme but beyond the DAA the concerns around compulsory redundancy are very real.
I thank Deputy McAuliffe. Before I call Deputy Darren O'Rourke, both previous speakers ran over time. I accept that they did not through no fault of their own. I cannot make time as I learned to my detriment this week and so that time will have to be taken from people further down the list if everybody is to get in.
I will try to indicate when speakers have a minute remaining. I am not apportioning blame, I am just making the point that we have a finite amount of time. There are no clocks in the Seanad. Apparently, time is-----
On the prospective scale of job losses Mr. McGowan mentioned a tsunami. I ask him to give us a sense of the number of job losses that might be on the horizon if we stay on the current trajectory and with the current level of intervention from the Government.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
The DAA has indicated that it is seeking between 750 and 1,000 redundancies. Aer Lingus has indicated that it is seeking 500 redundancies. Tracking the announcements made in some of the companies where we are not recognised I believe that in Dublin Airport the current figure in terms of intended redundancies stands at around 2,500. It is important to note that we are in the early stages in this process. As I said in my opening statement we are heading into the winter which is traditionally a quieter time in the aviation industry. It is traditionally a time when the airport and airlines do not make money, even in normal times. This is compensated for by the busy summer months. However, this year that has not come to fruition. Any expectation that people had that the situation would improve dramatically in July and August has not happened.
In regard to the Dublin Airport campus, 2,500 redundancies is probably the thin edge of the wedge. I have already referenced Swissport which has indicated it is seeking to make 52% of its staff in the UK redundant. That would transfer into an additional 400 redundancies here. Shannon Airport is seeking an unspecified number of redundancies. There are other industries that are dependent on aviation, such as the aviation repair industry which is heavily based around Shannon Airport. The people who work in that area are currently working half time in the main. While the planes are not flying they will not to be maintained. The problems for that industry are probably several months away. Unless we have direct intervention from the State in the form of the temporary wage subsidy scheme and in the form of assistance to the airports, the third party handlers and the airlines the figure of 2,500 to 3,000 will look very modest as we head into January and February of next year.
I thank Mr. McGowan. Moving to the issue of the health and safety of workers, the submissions outline the really important work that is being done in terms of bringing our people home and transporting essential goods. Is there any information of clusters of positive cases among airlines or people working in the aviation sector that might indicate they were at increased risk of exposure to Covid-19?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
We have crew who stay in US cities every night of the week. None of them has contracted the virus in the US. Crew members have been staying in hotels across the United States of America for a number of weeks now and I am not aware of any crew member testing positive as a result of their work activity in the United States.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
There have been a number of confirmed cases in the airport in Dublin and I believe the totals are in single figures in Cork Airport. Thankfully, across the airport in Dublin, in general the infection rates have been quite low. The exception to this is the fire station in Dublin Airport where, at the very early stages in March and April of this year, there was a cluster. It resulted in serious strains being put on the operation because a number of people had to self-isolate as close contacts. At one point, 34 of the 100 firefighters were out, either diagnosed with Covid-19 or advised to self-isolate as a result of being a close contact. Our firefighters in Cork had to travel to Dublin to provide the minimum cover to keep the airport open. This was at the time flights were flying in from China with vital personal protective equipment, PPE.
In general, the infection rates among airport workers have, thankfully, been low but the fire station in Dublin Airport is one example of a cluster in the aviation industry.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
I do not have an exact figure. When we have asked the question of employers they have given the figures to us on a section-by-section basis in the airport. In the airport search unit it is less than 1% of the 800 people employed in that section. In the fire station in Dublin Airport there were certainly more than ten confirmed cases. At one point, more than 30 people were out, either with a diagnosis of Covid-19, or having been advised to self-isolate as a result of being a close contact. Unfortunately, some of our firefighter members in Dublin became seriously ill. They are, thankfully, on the road to recovery. That is the only example of a cluster. The other confirmed cases were spread across the various sections in the airport and have been in single figures, even in the larger areas.
We wish them well in their recovery and thank them for all the important work they do.
On the challenge for the sector overall, I take the points made about Ireland being an outlier but it strikes me that there is a fundamental conflict between the wishes for public health when NPHET has been very clear in its requests here, and the interests of the aviation sector more generally around the issue of movement. It is clear that the single greatest tool we have in our fight against Covid-19 is quarantine and the restriction on movement. Aviation is the exact opposite of this, regardless of what might be said on the evidence base. It is a question of the lack of quality of our evidence base rather than it not existing. The virus is spread by the movement of people and the aviation sector and travel involves such movement. That challenge must be squared. The Government seems not to have persuaded people of the model it is proposing. I believe there is a lack of confidence among communities and even within Government. Given that we have we have the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, data, we have European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, guidelines, will Mr. Cullen outline what model he would like to see implemented? Is it testing and tracing at airports with an all-Ireland approach? What would going through an airport look like?
As far as I can see there is no mandatory wearing of masks in Dublin Airport, or it is certainly not implemented. Reference was made to the passenger locator form as being quite inadequate. I agree with Mr. Cullen there. What model would Mr. Cullen envisage that would give confidence to people in Ireland that the system is working here and that the people who come through the system and others are not being put at risk?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
We are in the risk management business. That is what we do for a living. All pilots are obliged to look after the safety of their passengers and crew. This is a legal obligation on us and it does not end with the physical incident or accident, it also involves the health of the passengers while entrusted into our care on the aircraft. We are in the risk business. In every airline and in every aviation industry there is a balance to a debate about the risk and what is done to mitigate that risk. I would say there is a lack of counterbalance in the information the Government is receiving at the moment. Notwithstanding that, the Government has taken a view and we accept it is entitled to take that view, but one cannot put us out of business by restricting our ability to do our business and then not assist us. My argument is quite simple: if the Government is going to impose the most restrictive regime on travel in western Europe it will also need to do the other things to make sure we still have an industry when this crisis passes. The point I make here today is that the Government is having its cake and eating it when it comes to the aviation industry. Ireland is an outlier, not only with regard to having most restrictions, we are also outliers in our failure to assist the industry.
I welcome our guests this morning. I largely agree with the witnesses' criticisms of the green list. It looks to me rather like a Euro championship qualifier group. I do not see much in terms of solid and worthwhile connectivity with countries such as San Marino and Monaco there. They certainly do not offer the quality connectivity on which we in the mid-west, and particularly Shannon Airport, are reliant. Ireland cannot be the outlier of Europe. The R-nought has now crept back into "acceptable" levels, and I welcome the announcement of this by the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, yesterday. I use inverted commas because it was at 1.8 last week and is now around 1.4. I am aware that in Britain this morning the rate is around 0.8 or 0.9. There is a country that has a lower R-nought rate than Ireland. This green list needs to be very fluid. It cannot be reviewed on a fortnightly basis, it has to be very fluid and we need more certainty so people can get in and out with quality connectivity.
I will now turn to the Aer Lingus temporary lay-off of staff. There was very little cognisance of seniority from what I could see. I have looked at a number of Aer Lingus contracts, which were redacted, and the contracts are to the company not to the Dublin station of Dublin Airport, or to Shannon Airport. If there were to be any temporary or permanent lay-offs then I believe they should have been on a last-in, first-out basis. That is how it works in most places of employment. Yet, some of the most senior staff of the organisation in Shannon Airport are those who are losing out most, while those who came in over recent months in Dublin Airport remain on. Perhaps the witnesses will speak about this from a SIPTU point of view.
On testing and contract tracing I would like to hear the views of IALPA on its experience, as its members are flying into a host of different countries. How is Ireland differing from other countries in what they have to offer on inbound and outbound screening right to the departure gates? Is there a difference between airlines also? Surely there are some PPE requirements and guidance offered on aeroplanes apart from the information on how the passenger must clip his or her life vest and how to wear the oxygen mask. Surely there is some guidance or is Ireland an outlier in this regard also? Will the witnesses answer that?
There is another huge issue we have not focused on. I believe that the whole focus has been on Dublin Airport recently.
Some 130,000 passengers have arrived in Dublin Airport since the start of the month but only 8,600 passengers landed in Shannon Airport in May. That is a major disparity and everyone needs to be mindful of that, including the Government and those who speak for workers and the sector. We need to look at bringing Shannon Airport back under the remit of the Dublin Airport Authority.
I will bundle my final questions. I would like to hear more about the filtration system. I have seen people wear masks on aeroplanes in years gone by because they believed they would get a head cold while flying. Is that an old wives' tale? Perhaps the witnesses would comment on that.
Aer Lingus has a nice fleet of Airbus A320neo jets. I understand that at Dublin Airport, 40 fewer passengers than the allowable capacity board these aircraft because the runway does not allow for a fully-loaded A320neo jet to take off. Those are my few points. I ask the witnesses to comment on the reason we are outliers, the Shannon Airport versus Dublin Airport disparity, filtration systems and the A320neo jet issue.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
I will address the seniority issue regarding the temporary lay-offs in Shannon Airport. I believe the Deputy is referring to an agreement in place between Fórsa, as the union for cabin crew, and Aer Lingus. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on that. Regarding the SIPTU members laid off in the areas in which we engage in collective bargaining in Aer Lingus, the long-standing arrangement is that it is done on a section by section basis and that seniority is then the determining factor. The reality, however, is that Aer Lingus has not had operations out of Shannon since March. That needs to change quickly. I welcome the Deputy's support for our position on Shannon Airport returning to the remit of the DAA. If there is to be work for people in Shannon, there must be flights and connectivity to valuable routes. Despite all the predictions that the separation of Shannon Airport from the DAA would be an unqualified success, none of those predictions has come to fruition since the separation. I ask members to compare the experience of Shannon Airport with that of Cork Airport, which remained part of the DAA.
I acknowledge and thank the expert witnesses for coming in and for the overview they have given to us. It is worth recognising that the aviation sector has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the crisis. We should also recognise the essential need for connectivity. Connectivity was maintained during the crisis and for that we owe a debt of gratitude to the aviation sector.
I will dig a little into the suggestion that staff undergo rapid daily testing. I would like an overview of how many staff we are talking about, what kind of capacity would be required within the airports to perform these tests, how long it would take to put such a system in place and whether there is any information available on what it would cost the airports or the State to provide that type of testing facility. I would like some answers on those questions for a start.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
On any given day, there could be up to 2,000 people working in the airport. Not all those workers are in front-line roles, because many people work in areas such as management. To take the example of the airport search unit, there could be several hundred airport search unit officers on duty and the nature of their job means they have to come into very close contact with people. That is where we want to see the rapid testing system introduced.
We do not have costings but it is essential that such testing is put in place regardless of the cost because, ultimately, we are talking about the health and well-being of the staff who continued to work during the darkest days of the crisis to provide vital services to aviation. Employers in the sector were slow to introduce PPE, etc., as were employers across the economy. The question now is whether we afford not to introduce a rapid testing system, be it for staff or passengers, to try to assist with the opening of airports.
That is fine. If we introduce rapid testing for staff, do we introduce that testing on a mandatory basis or how do we cope with that aspect? I ask that question because it is very unpleasant to get tested for Covid-19, as we know. If a member of staff decides that he or she does not wish to submit to testing, how would the witnesses suggest we deal with that situation?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
We believe it needs to be mandatory testing. I do not believe the staff will have any issue with rapid testing, because they are calling for it to be introduced. It will certainly be in the instances where people have been in close contact with confirmed cases and if the contact tracing system was in place and was adequate that would clearly identify the staff who had been in close contact with confirmed cases. We believe, therefore, that testing should be mandatory.
I thank Mr. McGowan. I have a question on the passenger-to-passenger infection rate. We are told that passenger-to-passenger infection does not occur. I would like to dig into the robustness of the scientific evidence on that issue. When we are talking about this aspect, are we talking about aeroplanes running at full capacity or is it in the context of reduced capacity to allow social distancing within a cabin?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
We outlined this in our original submission in May, but to give the Deputy a picture of how the process works when people exhale in the aircraft that exhaled air is immediately sucked to the floor. It is then taken out of the cabin and put through the high-efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters, which are the same filters used in the operating theatres of hospitals. The air is then reintroduced into the cabin from the ceiling. That is the circulation cycle. The air does not go up and down the cabin; it immediately goes to the floor and out through the filters.
That is why it has been shown that wearing a mask in a properly-constructed aircraft, and all categories of commercial aircraft have been produced to that standard, is effective in eliminating passenger-to-passenger transmission. It is worth noting that the modern aircraft that use Irish airports are constructed and designed from day one with a view to carrying passengers in all parts of the planet, including in areas where there are highly infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, TB. These aircraft are deliberately designed to eliminate passenger-to-passenger transmission.
I acknowledge that both submissions today advocate and support the use of testing, with that from IALPA regarding people coming in and out of the country and that from SIPTU concerning workers. That is significant, it must be acknowledged and the Government and companies need to take cognisance of it. I thank the witnesses for their submissions in that regard.
I will ask Mr. McGowan two questions, and then, if he would leave some time, I would like to put a question to Mr. Cullen. On Tuesday, we are going to have a motion in the Dáil to amend planning regulations to allow for the provision of temporary structures for testing in our airports. Have the workers been consulted to any degree thus far on the provision of such a testing regime or facility in Dublin Airport, for example?
My second question, to Mr. McGowan, is to ask him to speak a little more about his experience of negotiations regarding a no-compulsory redundancy clause. I think that is crucial and his work on that issue needs as much support as possible.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
There has been no consultation with the workers or the workers' representatives in the airports regarding any temporary testing facility or changing regulations in that context. We have not heard anything in that regard. If that is something that is going to come to fruition, we will be eager to engage with it.
Regarding the negotiations concerning no compulsory redundancies, as I said earlier, I believe that the DAA has gone about this process in the correct way. Very early in the discussions between the unions and the company, compulsory redundancies were ruled out and a voluntary severance package was made available. We believe there is sufficient interest in that voluntary severance package for the company to achieve the reduction in numbers with which it wishes to move ahead.
That has not been the experience in every other company. We have yet to engage with Aer Lingus, despite it having been several weeks since it wrote to the Minister informing the Department that it was seeking to make 500 people in the non-pilot grades redundant. There is a very real worry in Aer Lingus that compulsory redundancies are something we will face in the very short term. It has been a long-standing position of SIPTU that compulsory redundancies are simply unacceptable. It is a road we have never gone down before, but it is a real fear that we might be facing into that in the immediate future in Aer Lingus.
Equally, among the third-party handlers, while many of them have engaged with the unions, there has been little in the way of meaningful negotiations. Several such employers are seeking to take advantage of the pandemic. One particular employer at Dublin Airport, with which we have a long-standing collective agreement dating back to 1996, is seeking to alter the terms of that in respect of public holiday entitlements, annual leave entitlements and sick pay entitlements, which I find reprehensible given the time we are in. I will leave it there and allow time for Captain Cullen to comment.
I thank Mr. McGowan for mentioning the third-party support services, which have been as affected as every other element of the aviation sector.
Mr. Cullen pointed to a slide on the situation in IAG airlines. It is quite stark and it lets a question hang, which I would like to ask him to expand on. What does he think IAG is planning for Aer Lingus?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
It is our assessment that IAG will prioritise British Airways, BA, and the two Spanish airlines, Iberia and Vueling, over all other assets, including Aer Lingus. It is our view that IAG is quite capable of liquidating Aer Lingus for the sake of surviving and ensuring that BA, Iberia and Vueling survive. That is our view-----
Mr. Evan Cullen:
Yes, but the reality is that the UK Government has not only supported BA, with a £300 million loan, but it has also supported Ryanair - an Irish airline - and EasyJet, to the tune of a £600 million loan. The Spanish Government has underwritten a loan to Iberia and Vueling to the tune of €1 billion, whereas the Irish Government has done nothing. Two Irish airlines, CityJet and Stobart Air, wrote to the Government requesting assistance. I have never seen the reply but, soon afterwards, CityJet went into examinership, while Stobart Air, according to public reports, has considered examinership and other options in the meantime.
Aer Lingus will be liquidated to save the pillar airlines of IAG because the governments of the two jurisdictions, in the UK and Spain, are backing up those airlines. The governments of all the western EU states are supporting their airlines. I have outlined a list of everything from France to Germany and Spain. Italy has nationalised Alitalia and Portugal has effectively nationalised TAP. The list is endless, and Ireland is the outlier, both in terms of the restrictive nature of travel and of the assistance.
We are an island and we require our ports and airports to a greater degree than people on mainland Europe do. Mr. Cullen spoke about irreparable damage. Has there been any modelling to determine the point to which the company can survive? Is there a number in that regard?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
For example, Aer Lingus is currently in a closed period and, therefore, we do not have access to its accounts. We are relying on information we have from negotiations with it. We negotiated a comprehensive pay reduction of in excess of 50% for approximately the next 12 to 18 months with Aer Lingus and we had some access to its figures. There are many qualified people within IALPA with backgrounds in accountancy or actuary who have done an assessment. We believe that Aer Lingus will certainly not survive another two months of this. We have zero revenue and a cash burn in the region of €1.5 million a day. There is no organisation, as we understand it, that can survive that.
Other organisations within the IAG group have received significant state support.
Even Irish airlines are receiving state support from the UK Government while the Irish Government does nothing.
I have limited time so I will ask a few questions. On IAG, Mr. Cullen stated that other governments are backing up their airlines. I do not dispute that. What evidence does he have to suggest that would be the difference in terms of the survival of Aer Lingus?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
The point is that there was no state support for Anisec in Austria and, to the best of our knowledge, there was no state support for Open Skies in Paris. Of those two airlines, one is in liquidation and the other has certainly stopped trading and is either up for sale or, if not, liquidation. The evidence is that if a state is not willing to back the local airline, IAG will not be willing to back it.
It makes an awful lot of sense to test at airports, but my understanding is that would require a two-phase test. One test would be done on the first day and another would be done two days later. Has Mr. Cullen thought about that and how it might be handled?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
We are in the risk-management business. When managing risk, it is never a binary decision. What is done is a whole series of strategies and tactics are put in place to mitigate the risk. There is no such thing as a binary decision. The only binary decision is whether to get out of bed in the morning. If I do so, I run the risk of something happening to me, whether I go to work or to school, or whether I go flying or not. What has to be done is that one has to build into the system all the components that mitigate the risk. When we refer to testing, I am not saying that testing solves everything. Rather, it is part of an overall strategy and set of tactics to deal with and manage this issue. There is no silver bullet. What is happening, however, and this is a very cynical view, is that travel is being used as a bogeyman to justify a lack of investment in measures such as testing and contact tracing. That is what we believe is going on.
I thank our guests for their presentations. Mr. Cullen stated that travel is being used a bogeyman to justify the lack of investment in every other area to do with the virus. That is a pretty big claim and I would like to tease it out with him. He indicated that his work is all about safety and risk management. There is no doubt that air travel is one of the safest forms of transport. In the case of regions that have very high R-nought numbers, however, such as parts of the United States, would Mr. Cullen not agree that, irrespective of how safe it is when someone is travelling to such places, it makes it much more difficult for any government to manage the virus when people come into the country.
If we are taking people from Texas into Ireland in large numbers, say, it makes it much more difficult for us as a state to manage the virus, not in terms of the actual travelling itself but in consequence of the arrival of people in numbers from such countries when we are trying to manage the virus here.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I absolutely agree with the Deputy. I am saying that there should be a green list that is informed, that is understood and that has expertise involved in it. The green list Ireland has published is clearly uninformed. The evidence of that is overwhelming when one takes into consideration, for example, the Canary Islands. To suggest that the Canary Islands should, for the purposes of a national health strategy, be seen as part of Spain and the problems we saw in Madrid is nonsense. The Canary Islands are the same distance from Spain as Iceland is from Ireland. Who drew up this list and what was their logic in doing it? It was not based on science.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
The other problem we have is that when people like us, who are safety professionals, look at what came out about the Government decision on the green list, it really does challenge our confidence in the Government. It was a blunt instrument, it was uninformed and it needs to be rectified. We cannot have a situation where a sovereign government makes such blunt decisions.
I do not disagree with Mr. Cullen on that point. However, on the wider question of opening up travel, there are things we have to look at. The witnesses said in their submission that aviation was being treated as the bogeyman in all of this. There was mention of high-efficiency particulate air, HEPA, systems. We have workers in Bus Éireann, for instance, who are being put in grave danger because there is no proper air filtration system in their vehicles. They are looking for a HEPA system. Is such a system in operation in the airports? Is all aviation as safe as Mr. Cullen is describing when it comes to the aeroplanes and that aspect?
Another question I have is whether Mr. Cullen believes that flights should be going out full? At the moment, when one gets on a Dublin Bus vehicle or a Luas tram, there is a big gap between passengers. Why would somebody get on an aeroplane and sit three together in a row, with the whole craft full of those rows? Does that make sense?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I do not believe Dublin Airport has a HEPA system but what it does have is space for social distancing. Going back to the aircraft, they are designed from day one to cater for highly infectious diseases and prevent passenger transmission thereof, not just for this virus but for many other deadly viruses. Any aircraft, when it comes off the production line, could end up on any part of the planet and, therefore, it has to be built to be able to survive anywhere and to deliver people safely to any part of the planet. That is why I am able to say with absolute confidence that when it comes to passenger-to-passenger transmission, if people are wearing masks and they obey the proper etiquette, they will be safe on the aircraft. I fully accept that there are parts of the planet to which there should be very restricted travel. The Deputy has named some of those places. I have to go back to the point that we should have a proper, informed and intelligent green list.
I have asked people not to go over their time. We can spend a lot of time arguing over this or we can leave some time at the end to bring people back in. I want to treat everybody equally and give everybody a chance to speak. I am sorry that I cannot allow Deputy Smith back in at this point. Deputy Shanahan has five minutes and I will be holding him to it.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions. As part of the Regional Group in the Dáil, I have called in the past week for polymerase chain reaction, PCR, Covid testing at Dublin Airport, acknowledging that there are flights originating from countries which we should have little concern about because they have diseases levels lower than our own. We absolutely have economic imperatives to fly to other regions, but we have concerns in that regard, mainly in respect of the USA. My proposal is to provide, through both Government and private industry provision, for a 24-hour turnaround of Covid testing at the airport, which is the same as we are doing in our hospital laboratories. From there, we can, as Mr. Cullen suggests, work through the contact tracing. Does Mr. Cullen believe this to be a feasible proposition for dealing with the matter at hand?
I am in agreement with Mr. Cullen and I think that we will arrive at that position. I would like to see it being progressed and I ask other Oireachtas Members to support it. It is the obvious and logical thing to do.
In regard to the cash burn that Mr. Cullen spoke about at Aer Lingus, we are aware that Ireland is probably the leading centre in the world for aircraft leasing. I imagine that one of the main operational costs on the airline's books at this time is the repayment of leases. I am sure a lot of that could be extended out, which would be the normal practice. Does Mr. Cullen know what portion of the €1.5 million per day which he says is being burned at Aer Lingus is made up of that component?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I would say it is most of it right now because salaries, fuel costs and so on have all been greatly reduced. To the best of my knowledge, not one aircraft lessor has written off any repayments. Airlines are getting forbearance; they are not getting forgiveness. Sooner or later, whatever deals have been done, the lessors will come knocking on the door.
That does not take away from the cash burn we are managing. All airlines are having to do it. What is unique about Aer Lingus and other Irish airlines is that there is no Government assistance for them, whereas the UK Government is assisting at least one Irish airline that we know of and other governments throughout Europe are doing the same for their airlines. The USA has poured enormous amounts of cash into its airline industry because it does not want it to go down. The Irish Government, for reasons we do not understand, is excluding its aviation industry from support, including in the stimulus plan that was announced yesterday. None of the airlines where we have members will get one penny from the stimulus plan because there is a restriction of €1 million applying under the credit guarantee scheme. When we have airlines burning in excess of €1 million a day, that stimulus plan means nothing to them.
There is a relaxation of state aid rules as part of the stimulus. I am sure the Government could do something to provide additional moneys to Aer Lingus. I would say that ideology is the problem in that such provision would be seen to be funding a private company. Ultimately, International Airlines Group, IAG, which is Aer Lingus's owner, is a private company. However, I accept that it is an imperative to have the capacity to fly aeroplanes into and out of Ireland.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
With respect to the Deputy, British Airways is the biggest component of IAG and it has received a £300 million state-guaranteed loan from the UK Government. Iberia is the other pillar airline of IAG and the two Spanish airlines have received a €1 billion government-backed loan on condition of there being no redundancies at the airlines. I have set out all these details in the submission provided to members. Lufthansa has received €9 billion, Air France has got €7 billion and KLM is in receipt of €3 billion. Alitalia has, in effect, been nationalised, as has TAP Air Portugal at a cost of more than €1 billion. The list goes on. The outlier, yet again, is Ireland.
My time is up. I will conclude by saying that Mr. Cullen's organisation and others should try to lead on the issue of testing to get as many people as possible back into the air as quickly as possible and provide some footing to deal with the cash burn he described.
A the witnesses know, there have been 3.5 million reported cases of Covid-19 infection in the USA, with 77,000 new cases confirmed today. I have been calling for rapid testing at our airports for nearly two months, a call which has gone unheeded by the Government.
This can be done, and has been done, in various other countries throughout the world. The mandatory quarantine is not being enforced here. Visitors from high-risk countries are travelling freely around Ireland. This increases the likelihood of Covid-19 spreading and causing more devastation to our country and economy. Airports could remain open to visitors if we took certain measures. First, high-risk visitors should be tested before coming to Ireland. They should provide recent medical certificates showing they are free of Covid-19. Countries such as Austria and the Czech Republic are doing this. A traveller entering the United Arab Emirates must provide a negative Covid-19 test result, meaning no financial burden falls on that state.
Second, visitors who arrive without medical certificates should undergo mandatory testing at their own expense on arrival in Ireland. Some countries, such as Iceland, charge visitors a fee on arrival to cover tests. Many Irish people are scared to go to tourist areas in their own county this summer because they are worried that these areas are quickly becoming Covid-19 hotspots. Ensuring visitors are tested before arrival, or on arrival at their own expense, will help to protect Irish citizens without causing a significant burden on the State. Last Sunday I witnessed the strictness with which other countries apply their rules first-hand. I dealt with the case of a very ill young person whose parent had to fly to be at their bedside in America immediately. No matter how we tried, the parent could not fly out on Sunday as he had to be Covid-19 tested. He had to jump many more fences before he could be at his son's bedside. If that took place here, up until now the traveller would get a pat on the back and be left to it. A traveller fills in a form and we wish them the best of luck. Rapid testing should be done in our airports to reopen Ireland. It is a simple no-brainer. We need tourism to reopen in a meaningful way in south-west Cork. I can see the devastation caused by that not happening.
I refer to two short emails from some of my constituents. These are just two of the hundreds I have received in recent weeks. One constituent notes that it is surely madness to permit American tourists to fly into Ireland without enforcing the 14-day isolation rule. If it cannot be strictly enforced, my constituent states that the Government owes it to Irish citizens to stop them from entering the country. We have sacrificed so much during the lockdown, and to waste it all through unsupervised tourism is totally reckless. Irish people can be fined or jailed for breaking the Covid-19 laws but there is no penalty for tourists who refuse to quarantine.
The second email expresses concern about reports of American tourists entering and travelling around Ireland without any restriction. The reports suggest that none of them is isolating. My correspondent writes that this is an insult to the people of this country who went into lockdown. Thousands lost their jobs, but they did it willingly to protect the citizens of this country. My constituent believes that allowing visitors from the most infected country in the world to arrive on our shores is an absolute disgrace and, more important, it puts our front-line workers in danger. The Government must step up to the mark and either ban American tourists or put more stringent measures in place.
What advice should I give to people who send me messages like this on an ongoing basis? What are Mr. Cullen's thoughts on these opinions?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I agree with an awful lot of what the Deputy said, but we must stick to the facts. According to the Minister for Health, four cases have come from the USA since 1 June. That is a fact people cannot get away from. We have no difficulty with testing people before they travel to Ireland. We have no difficulty with parts of the USA and Europe not being on the green list. However, a balance must be struck. There must be a counterbalance to this argument. Ireland has deviated from the recommendations of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. We are interested in the reason for these deviations. It has never been explained to us. There seems to be a lack of balance in the entire debate. The sooner we have robust testing regimes, robust passenger location follow-up and a holistic plan of action, the better. Conversely, if the Government is determined to keep going the way it is going and refuses to tell us what has to happen before aviation is resumed, it needs to assist us before there is no aviation industry left.
I thank Mr. Cullen. I have been pushing for same-day rapid testing in our airports and ports for the past two months, to no avail. I have been told that testing is only 70% to 80% proof. That is better than 0% proof. Is there any way for that to happen?
I thank the witnesses for attending. One thing the pandemic has brought home to me is the number of airline staff, including cabin crew, pilots, maintenance workers, etc. among our constituents. At some stage we will have to combine an adult mentality with personal responsibility in this regard. I have been very taken by the figures and I thank the witnesses for the clarification. Could Mr. Cullen say how many airline staff have contracted the virus?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I cannot give the Deputy a definitive figure but I will say this. We have 1,200 members. We have not received one report of anybody contracting the virus at work. Members have suffered from the virus, but not one case has been work-related. That includes pilots who have been flying in the USA. As we speak, there are about 30 Aer Lingus staff in the USA every night. The number can be as high as 50 on some days. Not one of them has contracted the virus on their overnight stays in the USA. I will go back to my original point. Behaviour transmits the virus, not travel.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
All overnight activity has been restricted. There are three flights a day to Heathrow, but the crew does not leave the aircraft. No crew members contracted the virus when we were operating flights to Beijing to collect personal protective equipment, PPE. We are starting an operation to Seoul in South Korea. Again, six pilots will operate those flights to bring PPE to Ireland and-----
I do not want to go beyond my time. I thank Mr. Cullen for his response. Is it true that there is no evidence of any Aer Lingus crew members or any of the 1,200 staff Mr. Cullen represents contracting the virus as a consequence of flight?
I am concerned about other flights. Those who are most exposed are cabin crew and pilots, because they are on the aircraft. Mr. Cullen is setting out the view that flying is extremely safe. If Mr. Cullen does not have those statistics, it would be helpful if that information could be forwarded to the committee. Perhaps Mr. Cullen could get the information on other airlines too.
Mr. Cullen has spoken about Aer Lingus crew flying to the USA. Given the fact that the same safety measures are taken across the board whether crews are flying to East Midlands Airport or Seoul and they fly on the same aircraft, would it be a safe general assumption that it is rare for cabin crew to contract the virus?
I thank Deputy Lahart for staying within the five-minute time limit. The next speaker is Deputy O'Reilly from Sinn Féin, who I understand is going to take five minutes and will then pass over to Deputy Wynne.
That is right. I thank our witnesses for coming in and for the evidence they have given. Dublin Airport is in my constituency and I have been inundated with emails from worried people and contacts from people working in the airport who are terrified for their jobs. They are deeply concerned. The airport is extremely important for north County Dublin as an employer and is a part of the fabric of our community. I am glad to hear that there has been engagement with the DAA but I am less happy to hear that the situation in Aer Lingus remains as challenging as it is. Given that we are an island nation, we need our airport more than countries that have the option of a landbridge.
We heard about a cluster of infection that previously occurred in the airport. Can Mr. McGowan advise the committee if there are concerns that there may be additional clusters, what particular steps have been taken and what level of engagement has there been with workers right across the airlines and the DAA with regard to measures that are necessary to ensure that their health and safety is protected?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
There was a cluster of infection in the fire station of the DAA and, thankfully, it has been brought under control. It is important to note that the fire service in the DAA does not only offer an expert aviation fire-fighting service but also runs a domestic ambulance that deals with the airport and a domestic fire tender. Those fire-fighters are not confined to the fire station under normal circumstances but are out and about around the airport, treating passengers, staff and so on who become ill.
There has been reasonably good engagement with the DAA on social distancing measures. The personal protective equipment, PPE, situation has certainly improved but we would like to see it improve further. I believe that the DAA was relatively slow, as were many employers, in issuing the PPE to staff members, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. I believe they were relatively slow in introducing some of the physical infrastructure needed to protect the staff, such as Perspex screens for the airport search unit officers and so on.
There are still serious concerns around the break room facilities in the airport. There is still a relatively large number of staff on duty at any given time and the break room facilities are often not adequate. That is something that we continue to push with management of the airlines, airports and third party handlers because we must ensure that those break facilities are sufficient and additional space needs to be made available, if required.
My next question is for both witnesses but I will make one remark before I ask it. What people are saying when they contact me is that their jobs are under threat, they are fearful for their livelihoods and, when they look across, they see construction continuing on the new runway. That is sending a mixed message to people. Sinn Féin will work to ensure that the jobs in question are saved. We have all now come to regret the decisions of successive Governments regarding the sell-off of Aer Lingus and the fact that we have no control there. Could our witnesses describe what morale is like among union membership at the moment?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
Morale among membership, whether within the DAA, Aer Lingus or anywhere else, is absolutely on the floor. People have no certainty heading into the winter. We have already described, in response to questions from other Deputies, the level of uncertainty that people are facing. That is why it is essential that the Government steps up to the plate and intervenes on a large scale.
The concern people have is that, week to week, they do not know what they are going to be earning. People are taking the three-month breaks on mortgage payments that are available but those who are in private rented accommodation have absolutely no certainty that they will be paid enough next week to meet their financial obligations.
That is why the Government needs to step in and maintain employment in the industry so that, when we come out the far end of the pandemic, we have an aviation industry that can assist in rebuilding the economy and society post Covid-19.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
From the point of view of pilots, there have been compulsory redundancies in CityJet. So-called Irish airlines are using the Irish employment laws, redundancy practices, corporate tax system and temporary wage subsidy scheme to make Irish workers redundant so that they can employ people in other EU jurisdictions where there is a pro-employment and anti-redundancy policy.
I thank all our witnesses and speakers for an informative session. Our guests have painted a very stark picture for their industry. The message we need to take back to the Government is that this is an industry in crisis and in need of support and intervention. Our guests have documented the supports they have had in Europe. We are an island nation, depend on the aviation sector, and must stand shoulder to shoulder with our guests at the moment.
There is a conversation about aviation occurring at present. We have a green list of countries that has been much criticised but the general, unchanged message from the Government has been that people should not travel unless it is essential. That has engendered a conversation about travel in many homes across Ireland. I wish to ask a specific question which I will frame now and expand on the detail thereafter. My question is about people who have flights booked for August and right up until schools go back at the beginning of September. Other people had flights booked during June and July and did not receive refunds. Are our guests in a position to give us some indication of the value of those flights and the numbers of people who were affected?
As I said, conversations are under way in homes and fall into two distinct groups. There are families who worked assiduously for the past year and saved money for a holiday into which they put a lot of faith and expectation. They worked doubly hard and perhaps took on a part-time job to pay for the holiday. They may have faced illness or bereavement in their households. There may be children in those households who are in difficulty in school or with societal issues. Those families had invested hope and expectation in the holiday they booked. Those people had no choice. They felt obliged to take the flight with a heavy heart and sense of shame that they were going abroad. They were unable to post pictures to social media or say that they had a nice time. They then had to self-isolate when they came home. Another group of people went through the same rigours of saving money for their holidays but were able to take the decision, in the interest of the national public health and for the welfare and well-being of their communities and neighbours, to not travel abroad. Those are the two cohorts of people about whom I am speaking.
We are building up to an expectation that our schools will return in September, which is important for child welfare and development. It is also very important for Ireland Inc. that our schools resume in September because we need to send a strong message to Europe and investors that we are open for business. We cannot countenance a situation where we are the last country in Europe that has not got its children back to school. For that reason, it is important that families should not feel pressurised to get on an aeroplane between now and the end of August.
I asked a parliamentary question of the Minister during the week and was left with reasonable hope from his reply that there may be consideration given to a refund scheme for the people affected. I am interested to know if our guests are able to offer any insight into the scale of what might be involved in that refund scheme. I would appreciate any detail on that matter.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
That information is not available to the trade unions. I think the representatives of the airlines are the only people who can answer how many people have been affected and what the total cost of a refund scheme would be. Everybody has massive sympathy for people who have saved and put a considerable amount of their resources into a family holiday and now find themselves in the very difficult situation where it is not available to them. We would be broadly supportive of a refund scheme for people but, unfortunately, we do not have the information the Deputy has requested, nor have we access to it.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions so far, for coming before the committee and for the information supplied, which I found very informative. I have some general questions on the impact of travel restrictions on the industry as a whole. I would particularly like to focus on Shannon Airport as it is in my constituency of Clare. My first question is for Ms O'Loughlin and Mr. McGowan. What has the engagement between the union and Shannon Group been like to date?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
I will try to put it politely. The engagement has been less than desirable. Management unilaterally made an announcement a number of weeks ago that it would introduce a voluntary severance scheme with career breaks and an offer of reduced working hours available to people. It also announced on the same day it was seeking a 20% pay cut until April 2023. That is completely unacceptable and will not be accepted by the trade unions. Protections are in place in the Payment of Wages Act and legislative protections were also introduced for Shannon Airport workers when the airport was separated. Shannon Airport needs to move back within management of the DAA. The project of Shannon Airport as a stand-alone entity has failed. I suggest it had proved to have failed prior to Covid and Covid has made the situation more acute.
In recent weeks, we have written to the Minister with responsibility for transport through the Irish Congress of Trade Unions seeking an urgent meeting to discuss the future of Shannon Airport. Unfortunately we have not received a response. The interactions with Shannon Airport management to date have certainly been less than desirable.
Ms Karan O'Loughlin:
We cannot at any stage underestimate or fail to describe the concern we have for the future of Shannon Airport. We believe it is essential for the region, not just for tourism but also for the connectivity required for the thousands of jobs there supported by industry. It is a matter of concern to me listening to the questions from the Deputies that it is only the Deputies from the region who seem to be inclined to ask questions about Shannon, when really there should be overall political will throughout the Government to understand the strategic importance of retaining the airport at Shannon.
I absolutely agree with everything the witnesses have said. I have been at many meetings with Shannon Group management and the experience we have had has been similar. I thank Mr. McGowan for referring to the separation. That was going to be my next question and I do not need to address it now. I agree with Mr. McGowan and so would Sinn Féin. We never agreed with the separation in the first instance. The numbers prior to Covid-19 demonstrate it was in a decline and the separation had not worked. Have the witnesses received a response from Shannon Group on how it would receive Shannon Airport going back under the DAA?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
We informed the management of Shannon Group that we wanted to see the airport move back into the DAA and its response was that its duty as the management appointed by the current Shannon Group board is to try to pursue the best strategy as it sees it. It did not necessarily offer an opinion on it.
No problem. I will move on. My next question is to Mr. Cullen. During the pandemic we have heard of many lay offs of general airport staff. We do not feel there has been enough noise about the lay offs of pilots. Will Mr. Cullen outline the difficulties his members face, particularly in reference to the large amounts of debt due to loans they may have taken out to partake in flight school?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
The average cost for basic training of an airline pilot is approximately €100,000.
The majority of pilots in Ireland self-fund by means of various schemes but largely they are backed by their parents who mortgage their homes. These pilots are now at the receiving end of lay-offs and redundancies throughout the business. On top of this, we have Ireland's unique facilitation of bogus self-employment of all workers in aviation throughout Europe. Ireland facilitates bogus self-employment of pilots and other aviation workers in order to provide cheap labour on what are, effectively, zero-hour contracts. This can only be done through Irish legislation and Irish corporate law. These people have been devastated by what has happened because when they do not fly they do not earn. These people are in particularly dire straits and many of them are young pilots. There are plenty of official documents on this.
To go back to the questions I asked earlier, reference was made to the need for a more co-ordinated approach between Belfast and the Irish Government. I referred to a number of destinations from where flights come to Belfast. Will the witnesses elaborate on what they believe should be a more co-ordinated approach? I am not clear on what exactly they feel is the best way forward in dealing with this issue. We have one set of rules to do with Dublin, Cork and Shannon and there is a totally different set of rules in Belfast. Who do the witnesses say should be responsible for this co-ordinated approach if it is not within the jurisdiction of the Government here to do it with regard to Belfast?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I agree with this but if the Irish Government were to adopt the guidelines from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, it would be somewhat closer and more sophisticated in its approach to this than it is at present. It would be closer to the Belfast position. There should be an all-Ireland approach. The European guidelines are excellent and they work. Countries throughout Europe are using the guidelines, implementing them and getting results from them. I suggest that this should be the all-Ireland approach. It certainly should be the Irish Government's approach. What we cannot understand-----
Mr. Evan Cullen:
I believe we should implement the guidelines from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Knock. It is possible that Northern Ireland is not complying fully with them. I do not have details on that. What I do absolutely know is that the Irish Government is not complying with the European guidelines and there is serious evidence that it adopting a very blunt instrument in dealing with this rather than an informed, nuanced approach.
The number coming into Belfast is far higher than what is coming into Dublin, Cork or Shannon. What I am asking Mr. Cullen is whether he is saying that flights from the destinations coming into Belfast should also be allowed to come into Dublin, Cork or Shannon.
Just to let Deputy Colm Burke know, because I know he cannot see, that Deputies Dillon and Carroll MacNeill have come into the Chamber. How the party wishes to divvy up the time is a matter for the Deputies.
It is great to have an opportunity to attend the committee. With regard to my constituency of Mayo, I want to raise the issue of Ireland West Airport Knock.
On the current flights which have been halted in light of Covid, Knock Airport is a significant economic and tourism driver for the west and north west. Last year, it had more than 800,000 passengers. It is really motivated to hit the 1 million mark in the future. Flights from the UK would be Knock Airport's most frequent for both tourists and workers. When can we see those flights resuming? The task force on aviation report has been published. What is the pilot and the worker organisations' understanding of this?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
Operations in Knock Airport recommenced in July, in the earlier part of the month. That included several of the holiday destinations, as well as several of the flights to the UK. The information I received this week in conversation with some of our representatives there is that the holiday flights have been poorly performing but the UK routes are performing reasonably well.
Knock Airport was certainly on an upward trajectory. It had 875,000 passengers last year and was well on the way to that landmark of 1 million passengers. However, before we and other nations went into full lockdown, Flybe was one of the first casualties of the Covid crisis. Flybe was an important customer for Knock Airport. It provided several important routes that were well used out of Knock Airport into the regional airports in the United Kingdom. Flybe will need to be replaced. Ryanair is exclusively flying out of Knock Airport at the minute. Aer Lingus has a scheduled Gatwick route but the most recent information I received is that it is not due to come back until September at least. It is absolutely vital that this Gatwick route comes back because it provides critical connectivity to the west and north west into that key airport in the London area.
The Government will have to step in with regard to Knock Airport, as it will have to across the entire aviation industry. Some welcome funding of €1.2 million was announced this week for a security project for Knock Airport. As regards supporting the workers and ensuring current levels of employment are maintained, it is vital the temporary wage subsidy scheme is extended and amended for Knock Airport, as well as across the aviation industry.
Knock is going to need particular assistance from the Government in supporting its routes. It will have to attract new routes to replace those lost when Flybe went to the wall. It will need support to ensure the current routes are maintained, whether it is Ryanair or Aer Lingus. If Knock Airport is to get back to that position where it was beginning to flourish and grow, it will need additional support from the Government in attracting additional routes not scheduled for the airport previously.
On consumer confidence and some months forward when, hopefully, travel is resumed at close to normal levels, what do the witnesses think is a realistic timeframe for the recovery of the business, once travel is opened up to a reasonable degree? When one thinks back to the post-9/11 period, the recovery was slow. Covid-19 has had a much greater impact on the aviation industry and airlines. Confidence after 9/11 came dripping slow. Where do the witnesses see the role of the airlines and their workers in building personal confidence in bringing families back on to aeroplanes and so forth? How do they see the industry getting back to normal levels?
Mr. Evan Cullen:
All those airlines which have given indications on this have stated it will be the summer of 2023 or 2024 before we see the levels of traffic we saw in 2019. The recovery from 9/11, however, was much quicker than many people believe.
We thought at the time that the new security measures introduced after 9/11 were a bigger deterrent to travel than the actual fear factor that came from the tragic events of 9/11. I agree, as does the pilot community across Europe in its analysis, that the airlines are correct that it could be as late as 2024 before we see traffic levels similar to 2019.
Those are interesting points on security and adapting quickly to new ways of doing things. Similarly, we have adapted to all of the new measures but an aeroplane is a confined and close-contact space.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
We are in the risk management business. It is extraordinary how we see the Government deal with the risk management business, the binary approach, the lack of counterargument. In every airline there is a safety office. If the airline was run by the safety office, we would not get airborne. That is the nature of it. There has to be a counterbalance in the decision-making on risk management.
I thank Deputies Dillon and Carroll MacNeill. There has been much pressure on time today. I am sorry I cannot make it.
There are five minutes left. I will split my time with Deputy Duncan Smith who wants to come back in. Do the witnesses think that Shannon Airport was treated differently from Dublin and Cork Airports by the airlines in terms of prioritising the limited connectivity that remained in the State in response to Covid?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
It is quite obvious that Aer Lingus made the decision early in the pandemic to cease operations in Shannon entirely. Whatever about Dublin Airport and the volumes of traffic and cargo that moves through it, one must compare the experience of Shannon Airport to Cork Airport where Aer Lingus has maintained the routes as best it could. Our operational people in Cork continue to work, although at 30% of the hours they normally would and at 30% of their normal earnings. There has been the wholesale temporary lay-off of staff employed by Aer Lingus in Shannon Airport.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
It is our view, although we disagree with the actions of Aer Lingus, that it made purely commercial decisions. There was no other motivation or ideology. It was a purely commercial decision. I am not saying we agree with it but that is what it did. The fallout is Shannon which is dreadful.
A wider debate will have to be had about runways. The difficulty is that when one improves the network in a country the size of Ireland, one ends up with the airports competing with one another more. That is a bigger debate which has to be had some time in the future.
Mr. Neil McGowan:
All the decisions Aer Lingus made were based purely on commercial considerations. That was apparent in the way it has treated staff right across Dublin, Cork and Shannon Airports. It was across all grades too. Nobody has been left unscathed by this.
If Shannon Airport was in a position that it was growing at the rate that Cork Airport was growing, prior to Covid, those commercial decisions would have been a bit more difficult for the airline to make. The Shannon routes would have been in a position where they were more profitable and Aer Lingus would have been more inclined to take a punt on keeping them open for longer during the Covid crisis.
I thank the Chair for letting me in again. I wanted to ask about the wage subsidy scheme which most of the airlines have been receiving from day one, yet they imposed pay cuts and job losses. There has been an advocacy to say that the State needs to step in and give more support. According to this submission, conditions are attached to state support given to Iberia, KLM and Air France such that those airlines cannot change workers' conditions, they have to protect jobs and they cannot create redundancies. I seek a comment on that. If the State were to give more support on top of the wage subsidy scheme, how would it attach similar restrictions to the employer to stop abuse of the worker?
Mr. Neil McGowan:
We have included in our submission that the extension of the wage subsidy scheme absolutely must include binding commitments from employers that are availing of the scheme that there would be no compulsory redundancies or permanent reduction in employees' terms and conditions of employment. We believe that for the aviation industry, the rate of payment should be adjusted. Many workers in Aer Lingus who are working on 30% of their normal salary are receiving the wage subsidy only. People who have built their financial obligations around their pre-Covid earnings now find themselves in a situation where they are earning €700 a fortnight. People are trying to raise families and meet their obligations with that. I believe that where a company abuses the scheme by availing of the wage subsidy scheme and subsequently breaching any binding commitments that may be entered into regarding compulsory redundancies and so on, the company should be fined and Revenue should take back any support that has been given to those employers and pursue them in the courts for the same if necessary.
Mr. Evan Cullen:
IALPA agrees with the SIPTU position on that. Our preference would be the German model. Angela Merkel and the German Government were willing to put €9 billion into Lufthansa, taking 20% of the airline and putting two people on its board. It is not a million miles from the French position. A halfway house is the Spanish Government, which said that €1 billion would be underwritten on the grounds that there would be no redundancies. What is happening in the industry now sharply shows how the Irish Government approaches workers, workers' rights and workers' security, and how it is different to what goes on across Europe.
I thank Mr. Cullen and Deputy Smith. I have to get people out on time and we have to clean the Chamber for the next session. I thank the witnesses for answering our questions and all the Deputies who asked the questions.