Thursday, 5 July 2012
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Acting Chairman for selecting this important issue. I wish to raise the plight of the Irish trainee pilots in Florida who are experiencing a great deal of uncertainty about their futures, the qualifications they hoped to gain, the training they paid considerable amounts of money for and whether they will be able to remain in the US for a further few weeks to try to resolve the issue. There is a question of whether their visas will expire. It is expected that some of them will be put out of their accommodation, as its providers have not been paid.
This is a serious matter, but not just for the pilots in Florida. A number of pilots in Ireland who completed their training in Florida might not receive accreditation. It is incumbent on the Minister concerned to answer a number of important questions. What role does the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport play in respect of the Piloting Training College of Ireland, which is based in Waterford? When did the Department become aware that issues existed? They have come to light in the past day or so. How many trainee pilots are in Florida? How many trainee pilots' accreditation will be affected by this situation? Will the Government intervene directly and ensure the people concerned will receive the training for which they have paid? I am not suggesting that a universal scheme be opened, but a limited number of people have paid what is, given the economic crisis, a great deal of money. It is within the Government's capacity to make good on that investment. If necessary, the Government should introduce emergency legislation to deal with this crisis and to ensure the pilots will not be required to pay even more money to complete the course, given that they have already paid for it.
Will the Minister of State tell us if there are any other accredited pilot training centres or schools in Ireland, and if there are, what action the Department is taking to ensure nothing like this happens again?
I accept and understand that there is not, as such, bonding or insurance in place to protect the fees of the students, but has the Government given any consideration to introducing emergency legislation to require a bonding or insurance scheme to be put in place in order that this issue cannot arise again? The problems have been euphemistically described as "trading difficulties" but they are anything but that for the families and students who have scrimped and scraped to try to put together the €85,000 required to complete one of these courses. Many of the people involved have loans at high interest or have borrowed from within and outside their families to take on this course, and they now find themselves with the potential to lose everything.
It is the type of issue that arises from time to time where swift Government action is necessary, and I appeal to the Minister of State to convey to the Minister a desire among most people in the House that the Government would give every possible assistance to ensure the welfare of the students in Florida is taken care of and, if necessary, that the Government would put in place the funds to ensure the students succeed in reaching their final qualification without being required to borrow further.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, who is unable to be present. He had hoped to take this matter but cannot because these matters are being taken earlier than planned.
The Pilot Training College Waterford, PTCW, is a privately owned and operated flight training college, and the company has a pilot training college in Melbourne, Florida. The Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, which comes under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, regulates, approves and oversees flight training organisations in Ireland. The lAA's primary functions in this regard are the oversight of the safety, quality and standard of the training being delivered, the conduct of examinations and flight tests. The Minister has been informed by the IAA that PTCW had a contract in place with the Florida Institute of Technology to deliver the flight training in Florida. Training is carried out in Florida to take advantage of the better weather for training in visual flight operations.
On 26 June, the IAA was notified that the Florida institute was ceasing all training activities for PTCW due to a commercial dispute between the two companies concerning payments. The IAA immediately sent a senior inspector to Florida to establish the training situation. It has been established that students have paid PTCW for training and PTCW has a commercial relationship with the Florida institute to provide flight and ground training, etc. However, the IAA has no role in the contracts between self-sponsored or airline-sponsored students and their training organisation.
The IAA has advised the Minister that at a meeting yesterday with representatives of PTCW, it sought evidence and assurances that sufficient funding was available in the company to continue operations in Waterford, given that the Florida operations have ceased. Representatives of PTCW informed the IAA that they were investigating restructuring options but that this process could take approximately ten days to complete. On foot of this information, the IAA immediately suspended the flight training approval for PTCW.
The IAA is committed to re-engaging with any proposals emerging from the restructuring process that PTCW has informed it will commence, but in the interim, training in Waterford has been suspended. The IAA has assured the Minister that it will make every effort to ensure all training conducted to date in Waterford and Florida will be credited to the training records of the affected students. Representatives of PTCW have informed the IAA that they will endeavour to mitigate any losses suffered by students as part of the restructuring process, and both the Minister and the IAA hope a satisfactory outcome can be achieved to enable students to complete their training. The IAA continues to assist in every way possible, including directing students to alternative providers.
I accept the Minister is not present because business moved a bit more quickly than anticipated. I asked a number of questions and I am sure the Minister of State will communicate those to the Minister for Transport in order that I can get a direct reply. I am not for a moment suggesting the IAA has not done everything possible, and the reality is the IAA's role is principally about regulation. For that reason, the reply given by the Minister of State relates largely to that body.
The issue is not that the students should be directed to alternative providers. That would be fine if they could come up with the wherewithal to pay for it. As far as I am concerned, the Government should step in and deal with the affected students. I accept this is a private concern but, unfortunately, independent students have committed a large amount of resources to what they expected to be a State-regulated company. Generally when there is such regulation, there is an expectation that a course would meet a particular standard, not just in accreditation and the ability to teach but also in the viability of its future. There seems to be some clear gap in the regulatory process if a company like this is not bonded or does not retain student fees in an escrow account or similar format to ensure that what is paid for can ultimately be delivered.
There is work to be done by the Government to ensure this does not happen again and that any other flight school does not suffer the same fate. Students have found themselves caught in the middle and the State should step in to provide the necessary resources or, with the assistance of another flight school, see that the students get their training without any further expense.
The Minister is very much aware of the financial input that each of these trainees and their families and parents have given, and the Deputy mentioned a significant amount of money. It is a major commitment from any individual to put into a person's education. It is an investment and I have no doubt that when these people paid this money, they never thought the problem we are facing would come about.
The Minister and the IAA are doing everything possible to find a solution to this problem. The Deputy understands the issue is independent of the actions of the Government and the IAA but both the Minister and the IAA have some role to play. We must nevertheless respect the independence of the company involved. On 26 June the IAA was notified that the Florida Institute of Technology was ceasing flight training activities for the PTCW due to commercial disputes, and the IAA immediately sent a senior inspector to Florida to establish the ongoing training position for the students involved. The IAA is committed to re-engaging with the company involved when the restructuring is complete.
The Minister is in close contact with the IAA to see if anything can be done to enable the students to complete training. I have outlined the Minister's views on alternative providers. If there was an opportunity to go to an alternative provider that is recognised by the IAA, many students would take it up. The Minister is very much aware of the concerns of the students as outlined by the Deputy, and I will bring any questions posed by the Deputy to the Minister's attention. I apologise again on behalf of the Minister for his absence.