Wednesday, 4 October 2006
Pat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
I wish to say at the outset how shocked I was recently when the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Transport, revealed to me by way of a parliamentary question response that he intended to proceed with the dismantling of the current bilateral agreement at next month's European Council meeting.
This is despite the failure of the EU and the US to sign an open skies agreement. The proposed 18-month bilateral transition period was negotiated by the Minister in the context of open skies being introduced at the end of that period, that is, approximately April 2008. This agreement was the only transitional arrangement in the proposed EU-US agreement and was negotiated squarely in the context of open skies. It proposes to replace the current one for one arrangement with a one-for-three Shannon to Dublin ratio.
Now we learn that the Minister proposes to go it alone with the dismantling of the bilateral, although open skies remains far away. This is an astonishing unilateral action proposed by the Minister, which I am sure is contrary to the provisions of the Treaty of Rome. The Minister will recall that the European Court of Justice decided almost four years ago that the nationality clauses in bilateral aviation agreements were inconsistent with EU member states' obligations under the Treaty of Rome. The Minister, in effect, is now proposing to renegotiate the bilateral outside the EU. I hope he will change his mind and, if not, I hope he fails.
Shannon is not afraid of open skies. We are afraid of the actions of a Minister for Transport who is intent on introducing an economic liberal agenda that takes no account of the regional economic disparities or the special place Shannon Airport has as an economic driver for the west.
The Minister will say that he negotiated the transition agreement in the context of assurances from Aer Lingus to maintain the current level of transatlantic traffic of approximately 400,000 passengers a year between Shannon and New York. On further probing, the Minister revealed that this was a verbal assurance only. As such, I believe it has little or no value.
The response from Mr. Dermot Mannion, when I repeatedly asked him for some indication of his long-term plans for the airport, was short. I pointed out that Aer Lingus, as the then national airline, operated fewer direct transatlantic services than its American competitors. I also pointed out that Aer Lingus was continually expanding its direct European services from Cork and Dublin, with no plans expected for expanding its Shannon services.
In a recent interview in Cara magazine, Mr. Mannion failed to mention Shannon Airport in the context of the development of new services. He also pointed out in that interview his intention to make Dublin a major hub for western Europe. Unfortunately, his response to me was much shorter on detail than that contained in "Cara" magazine. He stated simply:
I apologise if previous correspondence has not been responded to. Aer Lingus remains committed to our Shannon operation and, as I am sure you are aware, I am a frequent visitor to Shannon to meet with staff and discuss their concerns.
It seems then that the airport is a thorn in the side of Aer Lingus and the Government. The Minister's continued commitment to Aer Lingus, despite it now being a private company, is commendable. Aer Lingus has made no secret of its dislike of the bilateral agreement and has made it clear that its continued existence would affect shareholder value.
I am very concerned about the future of Shannon Airport in the context of the west. I question the Government's policy to make Shannon a self-sustaining airport based on an accountant's slash and burn technique. Shannon does not have to be self-sustaining. The Dukes Sorensen report indicated that Shannon Airport could lose up to half its transatlantic passengers in an open skies environment. It recommended the introduction of a public service obligation levy to buoy up Shannon.
The Minister for Transport has ignored the calls for an economic impact study to be done on the effects of open skies on Shannon. He could have negotiated a longer lead-in period in order for the infrastructure and marketing to be put in place prior to open skies. Instead he is now rushing out to Brussels to prematurely dismantle what little protection the airport enjoys. He promised an economic and tourism development plan for the airport in a blaze of publicity last summer, but we have heard nothing since.
Shannon is an international airport serving an economically marginalised part of the country. Its existence is good for international business, the west, domestic business and tourism. Expecting it to compete with the likes of Dublin on an equal footing does not make sense.
I had the pleasure of visiting Doonbeg golf club in west Clare last Sunday. An employer of over 205 people, it is a €175 million complex. Its existence is a tribute to the project backers, the locals who first mooted the idea and to Shannon Development, which first promoted it. It was put there because Shannon Airport is a stone's throw away and because it has direct airline services to the US.
I ask the Minister of State to implore his colleague, the Minister for Transport, to do us a big favour by remembering the Government's national spatial strategy, its obligations under the national development plan and its commitment to the people of the west.