Dáil debates

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Private Notice Questions

Air Space and Air Traffic.

5:00 pm

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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I will call on the Deputies who tabled questions to the Minister for Transport in the order in which they submitted their questions to my office.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Transport if he will make an urgent statement to the House on the steps he is taking to respond to the stranding of tens of thousands of air passengers in Ireland and abroad; the other forms of connectivity, in particular marine connectivity, being enhanced to deal with the current crisis in view of tens of thousands of travellers as well as the high value exports that depend on this connectivity; while acknowledging the safety-critical nature of air travel and the paramount importance of protecting air passengers and aviation staff, when he believes that air travel will fully resume; the information he has reviewed in terms of the operation of aircraft and the opening of airspace in view of these extreme conditions, and the way he has liaised with EU transport Ministers to facilitate the earliest safe resumption of aviation.

Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the assistance the Government is providing to stranded passengers and to enterprises dependant on aviation and tourism generally in order to alleviate the effects of the current crisis in aviation; and if he will make a statement of the matter.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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A Cheann Comhairle, I thank you and the Deputies opposite for providing me with the opportunity to address this matter in the House.

The volcanic eruptions in Iceland since last Thursday, 15 April have caused unprecedented disruption to European airline operations. In order to ensure safety for aircraft and passengers, the immediate reaction of the national air navigation authorities across northern Europe, including the Irish Aviation Authority, was to impose flight restrictions in areas affected by the ash cloud. This had the effect of stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers ever since. As the scale and implications of the eruptions became apparent over the course of the morning and early afternoon of 15 April, my Department activated the Government taskforce on emergency planning later that afternoon.

The task force has met on a daily basis at the national emergency co-ordinating centre and is chaired by the Department of Transport. It comprises representatives from all the relevant Departments and agencies. In response to the crisis, the EU Ministers discussed the current restrictions during a teleconference yesterday afternoon and agreed a co-ordinated response that would permit the progressive opening of European airspace based on technical data already gathered and on emerging data.

It was agreed that three different zones will be effective as follows. A no-fly zone will be maintained in the central nucleus of the ash emissions as safety cannot be guaranteed. An outer buffer zone will be created where operations will not, in principle, be impeded, even though there may be small amounts of ash in this zone. Decisions about operations in this zone will be taken in a co-ordinated manner by the authorities of the member states, based on all of the information available to the authorities. There will then be a third zone, unaffected by the ash, where no restrictions of any kind would be imposed on operations. This began to be implemented throughout European airspace from 5 o'clock this morning. However, as a result of increased eruptions yesterday afternoon and prevailing weather conditions, the anticipated prospects for easing flight restrictions in Irish airspace has not materialised. The latest information from the Irish Aviation Authority, issued at 4 p.m. this afternoon, is that Dublin and Cork airports will both remain closed until 8 p.m. this evening. Shannon airport is currently open but will close at 7 p.m. this evening. A further update from the Irish Aviation Authority will issue at 8 p.m. this evening.

The latest geological advice and information is that volcanic activity has entered a phase of less ash being generated. Met Éireann reports that while the forecast remains unchanged for the next few days, further evidence indicates that the weekend will bring changes to our weather pattern, which should enable flight restrictions to be eased over Ireland and Europe. I have asked my Department to contact the airlines to establish how they intend to resume services, including with the backlog, as airspace reopens.

It is difficult to estimate the number of Irish people stranded abroad but based on overall figures estimated by the European Commission, it could be 30,000 or more. However, the information available is that a significant proportion of this number may have successfully returned to Ireland by ferry. The task force was informed today that while demand is very heavy, ferries still have some spare capacity.

Yesterday, the Department of Foreign Affairs' crisis response centre dealt with over 1,100 inquiries, mainly seeking information about alternative travel arrangements. An official from the Irish embassy in Paris is positioned in Cherbourg to be of assistance to travellers.

In order to support visitors stranded in Ireland, Fáilte Ireland is in daily contact with 4,000 accommodation providers across the country and the 70 tourist offices. I understand that special accommodation rates in Bord Fáilte-approved premises are available for travellers who can demonstrate that they have been stranded. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation reported that while a number of companies have experienced particular difficulties, a substantial number of Irish exporters have found alternative channels for their products.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for his response. Why could we not get much more precise figures on the number of Irish travellers stranded abroad than either the Minister or one of his officials gave us this afternoon? We were given a figure of 20,000 to 30,000 but was it not possible to obtain more precise information from companies such as Aer Lingus, Ryanair and Aer Arann? Has the Minister been in contact with other EU governments, including the UK, regarding that matter?

I am glad to hear the Minister's announcement concerning Fáilte Ireland. My colleague, Deputy Mary Upton, sought such a facility for passengers stranded here but what about the performance of the airlines themselves? As the Minister knows, serious complaints have been made on Joe Duffy's "Liveline" show and other programmes about the difficulty of contacting Aer Lingus and Ryanair. People in Spain and other European countries have said that the two main Irish airlines did not want to know.

The EU Transport Commissioner, Siim Kallas, says that EU passenger rights continue to apply in these circumstances, including the right to receive information from airlines, as well as the right to care, refreshment, meals and accommodation, as appropriate, and the right to choose between reimbursement or being re-routed. Those are the rights that passengers have, yet it seems that the two main Irish airlines have not behaved well in this regard. Is that the Minister's experience and, if so, does he have any message for Aer Lingus and Ryanair?

I also welcome the announcement by Ulster Bank that it is providing credit facilities for our people who are stranded abroad. Has the Minister had any contact with the Minister for Finance, the Central Bank and the other main banks to ask if they will emulate Ulster Bank's example?

Why did it take five days for the Minister and the other EU transport ministers to have a video conference on this matter? Why did they not act on Friday or Saturday? While it is a natural disaster, it would have been useful if transport ministers had an earlier video conference with the EU Transport Commissioner. Will the Minister have ongoing meetings with his EU counterparts now?

Despite what the Minister said about the three zones, can he provide more details on the No-fly, Buffer and Third zones? How many miles wide are they?

There has been some criticism of the scientific advice by a Dutch MEP, Peter van Dalen. He said that the original ban was far too rigid. We have had experience in the Far East, including the Pacific, and North America, including Alaska, of aircraft having to cope with volcanic ash. Mr. van Dalen and some other MEPs believe that the original response was too rigid. We should have had more detailed meetings and a quicker recourse to international scientific advice to see if a partial reopening of airspace was possible.

Yesterday, President Grimsson of Iceland said that if the big volcano beside Eyjafjallajökull, called Katla, blows we will have to consider other forms of transport than aviation. What is the Minister's estimate of the economic damage to Irish airports, airlines and other companies operating out of airports? When all this is over, will there be any ongoing thinking in the Department about how important maritime and rail links are to this country?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy has raised a number of questions. Regulation EC 261 of 2004 applies to the rights of passengers. The enforcement body for this particular regulation in Ireland is the Commission for Aviation Regulation. The rights contained in that regulation apply to all passengers departing from EU airports as well as to those passengers departing from outside the EU, but arriving at an EU airport. The regulation does not apply to passengers travelling free of charge or at a reduced rate, but applies to scheduled and non-scheduled flights. It sets out minimum rights for air passengers when certain events occur, namely, being denied boarding, flight cancellations or flight delays. In summary, when a flight is cancelled with no prior notice, passengers are entitled to be informed of their legal rights by the airline; have access to telephone, fax, telex or other forms of communication; a refund or an alternative flight to their destination, subject to availability; and food, refreshments and accommodation offered by the airline, free of charge, while waiting.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The allegation is that people have been left to their own devices. Is that good enough?

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please allow the Minister to continue.

6:00 pm

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy requested information and I am imparting it to him. If that is not happening - and I agree that in some cases it is not - the body that will enforce that and to which people should report, is the Commission for Aviation Regulation. Currently, however, as people are in very difficult circumstances, it will not be much good to them to report to the Commission for Aviation Regulation and get compensation afterwards. Through my Department therefore I have been in contact with airlines where complaints have been made. I have to say that I have only received complaints about one airline - and it is not the one we would normally expect - concerning a lack of information and people not being able to get through to get information from it. I do not think the amount of information being made available from, or contact with, the airline is sufficient. Airline management will say that because of the major difficulties as a result of the number of people caught in different places, many of their systems, such as telephone systems, are having difficulty coping.

The bodies responsible for ensuring clear air space over Ireland and Europe are the various aviation authorities. They were in action from the word "go" in this regard. Eurocontrol is the organisation responsible for the safety of air traffic in central Europe and it was in close contact with the various air traffic control bodies in all areas. Together, they make the decisions on operational matters. I heard the captain of the flight that went through volcanic ash some years ago say on radio today that politicians should stay out of such decisions because they are made on the basis of scientific advice. The scientific advice available was to the effect that there should be no flights. It is only when it was anticipated that the ash would start to disperse that the need for a political decision arose. The European Union Presidency arranged the teleconference yesterday for that reason and a decision was made as a result.

The Deputy asked how wide the various zones were. The extent of the zones depends on the ash, its dispersal and the cloud. The primary or no-fly zone is the area immediately around the volcano. The second zone is the area covered by the ash cloud. Maps are produced on a daily basis and these track the ash cloud. The area involved becomes the buffer zone and when it is deemed safe to fly in that zone, flights will be allowed. The size or width of the zones varies, depending on the ash in the air.

Some people feel we over reacted. It is easy for people to say that now. However, if a plane crashed in Irish air space, I am sure I would be here trying to explain why I had not told the aviation authority to close down Irish air space. It would be a similar case if a crash occurred in Europe. It is very easy for people with no responsibility in this matter to say we over reacted. I refute and reject that. We operated and reacted in accordance with the general scientific advice available. However, the specifics of the cloud of ash over Ireland had to be measured and we had to obtain the scientific data. The precautionary principle was applied and I believe it was the correct approach.

On the Deputy's final point, it will be some time before the cost to airlines and airports can be fully measured, because it is an ongoing situation. I have seen estimates for Aer Lingus of a possible loss of €5 million a day, but some of that loss will be made up when flights are resumed. A loss in the region of from €7 million to €10 million per day has been projected for Ryanair and a loss of from €15 million to €20 million a day for British Airways. The airports are also losing revenue, as are the retail outlets in the airports. Tourism will also lose out in some way, but this loss may be compensated for by the fact that some people are staying home for holidays and some tourists have been delayed here. There are swings and roundabouts with regard to the problem. The damage from an economic and export point of view, if any, will not be known for some time.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for placing this matter on the agenda today. I agree with the Minister that we cannot interfere with the scientific evidence and that safety must be paramount. However, I have questions about the Minister's accountability and that of the Department of Foreign Affairs in dealing with the issues.

What protocols are or were in place last Thursday to deal with people who were stranded abroad? I refer specifically to Madrid where over 200 passengers were stranded and unable to make or receive contact from the Irish Embassy there over the weekend. I received a number of calls from people concerned about this. Does the Minister not agree that all our consulates and embassies, or at least those in key hubs, should have immediately put a 24-hour service in place, or at least a service from 7 a.m. to midnight, to deal with the queries of people who were worried and concerned? I am unhappy that was not the case. Having been contacted by people in distress, I raised the matter with the Department of Foreign Affairs on Sunday morning. It immediately rang the people concerned and gave them help and advice. However, they did not get that assistance in Madrid and their calls were not answered. I would like the Minister to analyse the reason for that and bring the facts to our attention. What protocols are in place for such contingencies?

A significant question also arises with regard to people stranded abroad with medical problems. A number of people who were also in Madrid contacted me in this regard. They had difficulty, even when they had a scanned copy of their prescriptions from their doctors in Ireland, because these were not accepted by the pharmacists in Madrid. It is important that embassies and consulates are able to disseminate the names and addresses of doctors or pharmacists who could assist such patients. It would, for example, be helpful if lists of doctors in the relevant countries were posted on the Department's website. Some people had unforeseen medical expenses or missed appointments here or have incurred expenses over and above what they expected. Will the Minister consider this from a humanitarian point of view and try to address the issue with regard to those who faced significant expenditure or had to pay for private consultations?

There has also been an issue with regard to profiteering. I understand a group of eight people stranded in Tenerife are being charged the princely sum of €1,200 for a flight from Tenerife to Barcelona. Profiteering is an issue that has arisen and I would like to know what the European Union will do to deal with it. Profiteers are trying to get blood out of a stone and people are being put into extreme expenditure due to unfair profiteering by agencies abroad. Can or should the European Union do more to arrange that national governments put protocols in place in this regard? The Minister has said that he has arranged that people stranded here will not be ripped off and has made special provisions with bed and breakfast accommodation for travellers. I welcome that. Can we insist that a policy be developed to be put in place throughout the European Union for the future?

The dormant volcano close to the erupting volcano is expected to blow within the next decade or at least during this century. It will have been dormant for 100 years in 2016. What arrangements are being put in place to deal with that? Its eruption may be more severe and have more adverse effects than those we are suffering currently. We need a structure in place to ensure that people are ready to act immediately, that the Department of Foreign Affairs and our embassies abroad are available on a 24-hour basis and that arrangements are put in place to deal with medical and profiteering issues.

Larger countries, such as the United Kingdom, have the capacity to send their naval services to carry citizens home. We should be able to liaise with those countries and make an arrangement or put a strategy in place to obtain their assistance. An arrangement should also be made for Governments, such as the Spanish Government, to deal with the issues of people stranded in places like Tenerife and the Canaries. People stranded in those areas are being charged a fortune to leave those areas and get back to the Spanish mainland.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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A number of issues were raised. Some of them were not directly related but I will try to respond as best I can. An event such as this is unprecedented in Europe and I do not think any of us ever imagined when this began last Thursday that we would still be talking about it on Tuesday or would probably be speaking about its effects on this day week also. As soon as the air space is freed up I expect we will have an urgent meeting of Ministers with responsibility for transport to discuss all aspects of it.

On the Deputy's final point, with regard to it recurring in the short term with the same volcano or with the large one beside it, Katla, we need to learn from what has happened. In this regard the Deputy mentioned incidents which need to be examined. The behaviour, reaction and response of the airlines and airports should be examined as should the response of host countries to try to learn from them. It is fair to state that although sometimes European regulations can be fairly obscure we probably have the strongest set of guarantees for passengers of any area in the world. However, I am sure we can learn from this experience and perhaps improve them.

I do not know whether anything can be done about profiteering in other countries of which I heard about from various constituents. However, I acknowledge, as the Deputy did, that in Ireland while we can be accused of raising prices when demand increases for specific events what has happened here generally with regard to accommodation and meals is that registered bed and breakfast and Fáilte Ireland outlets have endeavoured to keep prices down to make those already distressed feel a little more at home. They are to be commended for that. I must correct the Deputy as it was not something we told them to do, they undertook to do it themselves.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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That is very good.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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Fáilte Ireland was on the group and issues were raised with it to ensure there would be accommodation and this was the response we received. The Irish tourism industry and accommodation providers can take a bow for this.

I am disappointed to hear what the Deputy had to say about the Department of Foreign Affairs. I cannot contradict it. I know he stated it more in sorrow than in anger because in my experience the Department has always been very responsive. Perhaps it was overrun with this particular problem. I have not received that many complaints about its lack of response but I take the Deputy's point on it. The matter has been resolved now. The Department of Foreign Affairs has an emergency number in place and people are using it. More than 1,000 people used it yesterday. I am sure all of us, including the Deputy, were told the best advice we could give was to contact consuls and embassies abroad. Anybody who managed to do so was looked after very well. His point was that perhaps in the first two or three days they were not able to get-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Over the weekend there was voice-mail but no voice.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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We will take that up. The point was made that people were not able to obtain their medicines or were running out of them. That has been largely resolved although there were some difficulties with it.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I will raise different issues so we will not have repetition. Many airlines are speaking about compensation. Last night, the chief executive of British Airways, Willie Walsh, stated there was a precedent for this as it happened after the attacks of 11 September 2001 when the United States skies were closed. Will the Minister make representations at EU level for compensation, in particular for Irish airlines? Ireland is an island nation and is very much dependant on aviation, as has been seen in recent days. Aer Lingus stated it is running losses of €4 million a day although it has cash reserves of approximately €375 million. This has put huge strain on airlines. We do not know yet how much Ryanair is losing. Will a case be made at European level for compensation?

At their video-conference meeting on Monday did the Ministers put in place a contingency plan in the event of something similar happening whereby Ministers with responsibility for transport or Governments would meet aviation authorities to discuss such emergencies? This one has cost Europe much.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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If the EU decides to offer compensation to airlines we will make a very strong case for Irish airlines. However, at this point in time, with the budgetary situation we have, we do not anticipate we will be leading a charge to have States compensating airlines. We do not have the money to do so and we cannot do so. I saw the statement issued by the EU Commissioner, which was a bit careful. If the EU decides to provide a compensation package we will fight for our share of it. However, we do not anticipate being in a position to pay compensation directly to airlines because of our financial situation. I would be wary of compensation for an event such as this because it would tend to favour larger legacy airlines in Europe rather than ourselves. In the longer term it might prove to be more detrimental than help to Irish airlines.

As soon as the situation is resolved there will be a formal meeting of Ministers at which we will have a discussion and, having learned from this particular experience, put in place whatever plans are necessary for anything that might happen in the future.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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I want to ask the Minister again about people abroad running out of money. Will he and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, speak to the banks other than Ulster Bank to enable people to have enough credit?

I commend Bus Éireann for laying on extra coaches to London and other parts of the UK. Is this something the Minister can encourage? Will he liaise with Irish Ferries, Stena Line and the other operators to ensure we have a fallback position on the maritime and road fronts?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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I can raise that with the Minister for Finance. It is hoped that as a result of what has been stated here other banks will take the lead from Ulster Bank.

I commend Bus Éireann on the way it responded by putting on extra buses. I am sure there is business for other companies if they want to look in that direction. We have been in contact with ferry operators and they also participated in the task force. The capacity is still there. An extra 500 people were brought back on the Swansea to Cork ferry last night which indicates the ferries are responding very well. It will be important to learn the lessons from this and the importance of having Irish ferries operating is underlined by an incident such as this.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Some people may have incurred excessive or unusual medical expenses through no fault of their own as a result of being out of the country and having to pay for it abroad when they would have got it free at home. Would the Government be prepared to consider cases with such significant expenses?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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I could not undertake that the Government would underwrite those expenses. However, I would take it that insurance policies would cover them. I can certainly raise the other point the Deputy made on appointments with the Minister for Health and Children. Someone who might have missed an important medical appointment should be facilitated. I will take up that with the Minister.