Thursday, 4 February 2021
Air Navigation and Transport Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the House for the opportunity today to introduce the Air Navigation and Transport Bill 2020. As we all know, I am bringing this Bill to the House at an incredibly difficult time for Irish aviation.
Our airports, airlines, travel trade and tourism sectors have all suffered an unprecedented collapse in business as a result of Covid-19. Jobs have been lost and incomes decimated in a sector that has delivered tremendous growth pre-Covid.
I have met many people across the industry since coming into office, including employers, small businesses and staff representative bodies. I know that what they want most is a safe route back to trading. That is what we all want for them too and what my main focus will be this year. It will not be easy and at this moment especially it can be difficult to see past the imperative of minimising all but essential travel. However, Irish aviation is incredibly resilient. We have two of the most successful and financially robust airlines in Europe. We have an aviation leasing sector that is world leading and we have modern, high-performing airports.
With continued Government support I am absolutely sure Irish aviation will recover quickly and rebuild the global connectivity that is so important for our economy. So far, Government support for the aviation industry is close to €200 million. It is estimated that more than €100 million in financial support has already been made available under the central schemes for Irish airlines and airports, including the wage subsidy scheme, the alleviation of commercial rates and others.
In addition to these general business support measures, the Government has also agreed a revised €80 million funding package specifically for Irish aviation. As a start, the regional airports programme 2021 to 2025 has recently been launched, with a budget allocation of €21.3 million. It will be targeted at supporting our regional airports in Donegal, Knock and Kerry. A further €32 million is being provided through a new Covid-19 regional State airports programme for Cork and Shannon airports, with another €26 million being set aside to help address airport liquidity issues for Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Donegal, Knock and Kerry.
While on the subject of supporting Irish aviation, I acknowledge the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks, which committed much of its time last year to examining the plight of Irish aviation and making recommendations on how to help it back on its feet. The committee's report identified many of the key issues and contains sensible policy proposals which align closely with the Government's objectives. It reveals a broad political consensus about the importance of aviation and State supports and the need for a co-ordinated effort between industry and the Government in setting out a realistic and clear path for recovery.
It is against this challenging background that I introduce the Air Navigation and Transport Bill 2020. This Bill looks to the future and seeks to put in place a modern regulatory system that will underpin Irish aviation for the next decade and more. An internationally competitive and sustainable aviation industry needs a strong and reputable regulatory regime, which is what this Bill provides. The current regime was put in place in the early 1990s, and although it has served the industry well over that time, the institutional structures no longer reflect international best practices. This Bill addresses that matter.
The Bill has three main objectives. It will merge the regulatory functions of the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, with those of the Commission for Aviation Regulation, CAR. In doing so, it establishes a single independent and strengthened aviation regulator. It establishes a new commercial semi-State company to manage Irish-controlled airspace. It also makes changes to how the airport charges are set at Dublin Airport by putting a greater emphasis on the needs and expectations of the consumer.
For the most part, the Bill provides for the redesignation of existing regulatory and business functions. Aviation is a highly regulated industry and the Irish system is mostly formed from adherence to international conventions and agreements and EU law. Much of this Bill is concerned with ensuring these international obligations are properly assigned and the new institutional structures are robust.
Taking each of the three objectives of the Bill in turn, I will first summarise the provisions of the merger of the regulatory functions of the Irish Aviation Authority and the Commission for Aviation Regulation. Currently, between them, these two State bodies are responsible for licensing airlines and individual aircraft; issuing airport operating licences, pilot licences and travel trade licences; inspecting compliance with aviation safety and security standards; setting airport charges at Dublin Airport; consumer rights under EU legislation protecting air passengers; and a range of other related tasks. The industry is required to engage with both entities and there is considerable overlap and interlinking with the engagement. This Bill will streamline the relationship, creating a one-stop regulatory shop, so to speak. The Commission for Aviation Regulation functions will be fully merged into the Irish Aviation Authority.
The second objective of the Bill is to establish a new stand-alone commercial State company to provide air navigation services. This service is currently provided by the IAA, which has a dual regulatory and commercial function. This dual model was conceived in the 1990s and regulatory developments in international aviation since make it something of an outlier. It is simply not good practice to have a commercial and regulatory function in the same organisation, especially when part of the regulatory remit involves oversight of the commercial business. It is a self-regulation arrangement, which is not an idea that finds much support nowadays. Therefore, as we merge the commission's regulatory functions into the IAA, we will at the same time remove the commercial business and set it up in a wholly separate State company.
Both of these steps - merging the regulatory functions of the IAA and CAR while establishing a new commercial State air navigation company - involve the reassignment of staff and the redistribution of assets and liabilities. The Bill provides a clear and fair legal structure for the transfer of functions, land, assets and staff. On the matter of staff in particular, employees will move with their current positions on no less favourable terms and conditions. This commitment is set out in the Bill and it means staff remuneration and pension entitlements will not be affected by the institutional changes. The vast majority of staff will not notice any material change in their day-to-day work. There will be only minimal changes with respect to office locations in and around Dublin city centre and this will be on an agreed basis.
I am glad to say my Department, the IAA and the CAR have maintained an open and very constructive dialogue with staff and their representative bodies on the provisions of this Bill. I am advised there is broad support for the reforms and comfort with the provisions of the Bill on terms and conditions.
The third objective of the Bill is to make changes to how airport charges are set at Dublin Airport. Under the Aviation Regulation Act 2001, the Commission for Aviation Regulation is responsible for setting the maximum price that Dublin Airport can charge airlines for use of its facilitates. It is a complex economic regulatory process but its purpose is to ensure that the price charged by Dublin Airport, which is ultimately paid for by airline customers, is fair and sufficient to cover the development and maintenance of the airport. In setting a maximum price, the regulator effectively frames the medium-term development plan of Dublin Airport.
The proposed changes set out in the Bill are based on recommendations arising from an independent review of the current framework, a review which included extensive industry and public consultation. The changes do not alter the main thrust of the existing price-setting regime but rather make incremental improvements that have the effect of strengthening the role of the regulator for the benefit of consumers. This part of the Bill contains policy changes, whereas the provisions on the institutional changes to the IAA and the CAR are almost exclusively about moving around existing functions. For that reason, I will take time to introduce these proposed policy changes.
First, the Bill provides for a change to the statutory objectives of the airport charges regulatory regime. Throughout the aforementioned independent review process, it became clear that the overarching objective for the regulator should be to protect the interests of consumers while maintaining high standards of safety and security. This idea is reflected in the Bill, which sets out that the primary statutory objective of price setting at Dublin Airport shall be "to protect and promote the reasonable interests of current and prospective users of Dublin Airport". That objective is set above all others.
The Bill also for the first time requires the regulator to take account of Government policy on climate change when making a decision on the price and the medium-term development of Dublin Airport. There are a number of other noteworthy policy amendments and improvements.
Currently, the Minister for Transport has the power to provide policy directions to the regulator, which must be considered when making a decision on airport charges. This power has been used by previous Ministers, but on reflection, it is difficult to square such a provision with the idea of strong, independent regulation. Therefore, it is proposed to remove it and instead provide that the regulator must have regard to current Government aviation policy. This will ensure that the regulator's periodic review of airport charges will be appropriately framed within the context of current Government policy, but without being subject to specific Ministerial instructions which could cut across regulatory independence.
Another change proposed in the Bill is to place a new obligation on the regulator to produce a statement of strategy every three years, setting out details and indicators of its performance. This is an additional level of accountability and transparency and is intended to dovetail with greater independence in decision-making. The Bill also introduces some additional flexibility into the regulatory process, by allowing the regulator to extend its current decision on the maximum airport charge price for up to two years. Currently, the regulator reviews and resets the maximum airport charge at Dublin Airport every five years. This will continue to be the norm, but the Bill allows for some flexibility around this, so long as all parties - the regulator, the airport and the airlines - agree that it is in the common interest to apply it.
Changes are also proposed to the regulatory appeals process. Currently, where an appeal of a regulatory decision on airport charges is made, the Minister for Transport is required to appoint a panel of up to three experts to hear the appeal. That panel of experts has the power to revert the regulatory decision back to the regulator for reconsideration. However, during the review of the regime, concern was raised from all sides about his process. It was suggested that any ministerial involvement was inappropriate and that the process had no teeth, with the appeals panel having no ability to direct the regulator to make changes to the determination. Ultimately, it is recommended that the current process be abolished. That is what I am providing for. In its place, it is proposed that all parties may appeal a regulatory decision directly to the courts. While there would normally be concerns raised about pricing the ordinary person out of an appeals process by requiring them to engage professional legal expertise at possible great expense, all of the appeals lodged under the current process to date have been taken by either airlines or the airport authority. Indeed, I understand that it is the practice in the current appeal process to employ legal representation, although it is not required. The likelihood of a single individual taking an appeal on this matter is remote.
Finally, to ensure that the airport charges regime continues to deliver on its proposed new objectives, there is a new provision for periodic reviews of regulatory policy. Such a review will consider the effectiveness of the current regime and will make recommendations for any changes. It will include stakeholder engagement and be cognisant of any changes to market conditions. Aviation is an ever-changing industry and it is critical to Ireland's economic interests. Therefore, it is important that we get the level of economic regulation right and so it is prudent to provide for future review of the regime to ensure that what we have is working.
In conclusion, this Bill contains important institutional and regulatory reforms which, if enacted, will provide a regulatory framework more suited to the demands of 21st century aviation. We are currently operating under structures first envisaged almost 30 years ago. Time to refresh is overdue. I know the industry is in a very difficult place at the moment and I have no doubt that it has more pressing concerns than regulation. However, my focus has to be on more than just the immediate crisis. The Government agreed an €80 million financial package for Irish aviation before Christmas, which will be rolled out through various support schemes in the coming months. If more is needed to be done, it will be done. This Bill is looking to what we need post-crisis and it is seeking to put in place now the structures that will serve Irish aviation for the next decade and more. It strengthens independent regulatory oversight, it addresses institutional structures that are outdated and it makes changes to ensure that consumers are better served and that their rights and expectations are recognised and acted upon. I look forward to this debate on the Bill and to discussing it in more detail on Committee Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Air Navigation and Transport Bill 2020 that seeks to reconfigure substantially our aviation and navigation regulation services. Sinn Féin is happy to support the Bill and will be proposing amendments on Committee Stage that we believe will improve on it. Before I delve into the issues of the Bill, I want to address the huge challenge facing workers in the aviation sector. I welcome the Minister of State's concluding remarks that if more is needed to be done, it will be done. There is a very firm opinion among workers in the sector that more does need to be done.
Sinn Féin fully supports the recent additional restrictions placed on international travel. I am sure the Minister of State is aware that we would like to see these strengthened further. Given the very high infection levels, the emergence of new coronavirus variants and the importance of protecting the vaccine roll-out, we believe very strict rules for international arrivals are essential during this time. There is still no mandatory quarantine, mandatory hotel quarantine or post-arrival testing. This is something that needs to change.
It must be realised, however, that the extension of public health restrictions means the extension of the current challenges faced by those working in the aviation and travel sector. Therefore, decisive action is needed now that will help the aviation sector survive, in the first instance, and recover more quickly. To counterbalance and to support the restrictions, the Minister for Transport must now step up and introduce measures to protect jobs in the aviation sector and the State's air connectivity at a time when international travel is significantly reduced. We have been calling for a range of reforms to help workers, but regrettably these have been resisted by the Government to date.
Since the outset of the pandemic, my colleague, Deputy Doherty, has been calling for a payment break for mortgage holders, in addition to protection from credit rating impairment and the accrual of additional interest during this time. This is permitted. As of 2 December 2020, the European Banking Authority, EBA, reactivated its payment break guidelines in light of the growth in Covid-19 infection rates throughout Europe. This position is now also a key ask of workers in the aviation sector. I urge the Minister of State and the Government to ensure that this protection is introduced. The refusal to date to introduce this protection is inexplicable and must change.
Pilots, cabin crew, ground staff, travel agents and others in the aviation and travel sectors have been some of the hardest hit workers due to the collapse of international travel during the pandemic. Many have not worked in almost a year, many have lost their jobs, while those remaining have suffered significant cuts to their pay during this time. The new restrictions are necessary, but will impact further on those workers and could lead to more job losses. The soundings from the sector are most grave. There is talk that it could be days and weeks, rather than months, before that prospect is upon us.
It is therefore crucial that the Government steps in now and provides support. There is no contradiction in supporting strongly the public health measures on the one hand and in calling for full support from the State to protect the sector and strategic connectivity on the other. Last year, we raised the issue of the €245 million connectivity fund and asked whether it could be used to support the sector. I received a reply to a parliamentary question last night on the current status of this money, which stated that responsibility for the management and control of it rests with the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA. I ask the Minister of State if the Government has engaged with the NTMA on this issue, with a view to using the fund to support the aviation and travel sectors. With the selling of our shares in Aer Lingus, we lost an important seat at the table. It was a decision that Sinn Féin opposed at the time. We continue to be proved correct on the matter. We have lost a seat at the table where we could have influenced the decisions made in a crucially important airline, namely, Aer Lingus. I ask whether the Government has examined a cash for equity approach or an extended line of credit in respect of the airlines based here, to get them over the current challenge. If not, why not?
There are lots of international comparisons, which I am sure the Minister of State has seen, in terms of the levels of state support that are being provided for the aviation sector. My primary concern in all of this is for the workers in communities right across the country. I am concerned with the international connectivity but also with the strategic regional importance of the aviation sector. It is something that absolutely has to be a number one priority for the Government. According to the international comparisons, Ireland is disproportionately dependent on aviation, yet we are really low in terms of the scale of support that is provided for the sector. We are not even on some of those charts.
Moving on to the Bill at hand, we are happy to support it. I have a number of questions for the Minister of State on various aspects of it. If she does not have time to respond today, she might get back to me with a response in advance of Committee Stage. The initial discussions on these provisions began before I was elected to the Dáil. I watched the discussion on the general scheme that took place at the transport committee in 2019. One of the topics that was raised at that time and not addressed was the cost of reconfiguration. I ask the Minister of State to come back to me with information on how that cost is broken down in terms of funding for staff, new buildings etc.
On the rights of workers, I welcome the comments by the Minister of State on the detail of the provisions in this regard. I would like more detail in terms of the level of engagement with workers, the impact these changes will have on them and what measures are being taken to ensure a smooth transition.
In regard to consumer rights, the Bill will see the dissolution of the Commission for Aviation Regulation, with its staff and functions transferring to the Irish Aviation Authority. As a result, the IAA, as regulator, will now hold responsibility for a number of areas, including consumer protection. It is my understanding that the Bill seeks to strengthen protections for consumers by providing enhancement powers to the regulator, including the creation of offences for not complying with a direction of the regulator and continuing daily offences for ongoing failures to comply with such a direction. We have seen time and again the weakness of our regulators. We have seen it, in particular, in the case of people who are waiting for flight vouchers and refunds and, worse again, those who are affected by ghost flights that left without them. They adhered to the public health advice and were penalised. There was no compensation for them and they have no protections. An Teachta O'Reilly and I wrote to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, before Christmas pointing to the weakness of consumer protections in this regard.
In the time remaining to me, I want to flag a number of amendments which, having gone through the Bill in detail, we intend to bring forward on Committee Stage. We believe there is an opportunity to improve it in a number of areas, not least in the area of the operation of the IAA. One of the provisions that we think should be included in the Bill relates to the need for the IAA to have a graduated fines system. The proposed removal of licence as the only stick is a drastic measure and the lack of provision for other sanctions weakens the IAA. There is a need for the IAA stakeholder forums to include all stakeholders and certain parties must not be allowed to demand the exclusion of others. There is a need for industrial relations issues to be comprehensively dealt with by the IAA or for it to have the power to refer them to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. We will argue that the legislation should underpin the peer support programmes across all airlines. Finally, there should be a charter for licence holders setting out the rights and responsibilities of each party and how parties should interact with each other.
I look forward to submitting these and other amendments in due course and to the later deliberations on the Bill. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to address these issues.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. As my colleague, an Teachta O'Rourke, has set out, Sinn Féin will be supporting this Bill. It makes sense to streamline the set-up in this area and for there to be a single, stand-alone regulator and commercial air traffic control operator. There are many other issues that could be addressed in the Bill. These include a graduated fines system to create a more robust sanctions process, the creation of a stakeholder forum to ensure the inclusion of all parties, including, most importantly, workers, and the ability for the Irish Aviation Authority to be able to deal comprehensively with industrial relations disputes or refer them to the Workplace Relations Commission.
All elected representatives in this State have been hearing from workers in the aviation sector who are very worried about their prospects of returning to work. The sector has been hit very hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and supports for workers need to remain in place. It is important that we protect air connectivity routes during the pandemic, but the Minister of State cannot forget about the workers in the sector. Many of them have families and dependents who reply on her to represent them at Cabinet and ensure that appropriate and necessary supports remain in place for them. It is essential to managing the pandemic on this island that travel in and out of the State is hugely regulated in the period ahead. This must not be to the detriment of workers and all of the economic supports need to remain in place for them. I trust that the Minister of State will be proactive on this issue when speaking with her ministerial colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, also needs to be more proactive when it comes to tackling importation of the Covid-19 virus onto this island. We need to see him being more proactive in engaging with his counterpart in the North and in helping the Minister for Health to deliver a safe framework for managing the pandemic across this island, including a regulated transport system. I cannot stress enough the importance of all-island co-operation to ensure a maximum suppression strategy is successful. Managing travel is essential to the success of such a strategy.
One area in which the Government has been weak is the sharing of data. I appreciate that this is the responsibility of the Minister for Health rather than the Minister for Transport, but the latter has responsibility for passenger locator forms. There has not been enough sharing of any of the data on passengers coming into the island, whether into Belfast or Dublin. The Northern Ireland Assembly's health committee heard this morning that no formal request for data sharing of passenger locator forms has been received on its end. The Minister of State might be able to tell us why this is the case and what the Minister is doing to ensure maximum cross-Border co-operation in fighting the pandemic.
I will conclude by raising an issue which it would be remiss of me not to mention, namely, mandatory quarantine. The Government has been very weak on travel restrictions. The Minister has taken advice from NPHET and watered it down or, in some cases, not implemented it at all. We need island-wide mandatory quarantining in designated facilities. That is the only way to stop importation of the virus. The approach the Government is taking will miss perhaps 40% of the cases coming into the State and, indeed, onto the island. It is shameful that it has taken this long even to introduce such measures. NPHET recommended last summer that mandatory quarantine should be introduced. It is something that needs to be addressed.
We support the substance of this Bill but there are areas in which we would like to see it strengthened and, as I outlined, aspects of the whole set-up that we would like to see improved.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. As advised by an Teachta O'Rourke, Sinn Féin will be supporting this legislation. We support the substance of it and we will, of course, be putting forward constructive amendments. I sincerely hope that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, will work with us to ensure the Bill is amended where appropriate. I very much welcome her statement that if more needs to be done, more will be done. As the debate goes on, we will hear about those things that need to be done.
Dublin Airport is in my constituency and, as a result, I have a very keen interest in developments in the area of air transport and navigation. My interest is particularly keen when it comes to the workers at the airport and the residents living in the environs of Dublin Airport or, indeed, far from the airport but under the flight path of the aeroplanes that arrive into and depart from it.
With that in mind, I would like to speak to these points.
Developments in air transport and navigation are always advancing, and they have been even during the pandemic. One of the main developments that concerns me is the failure of the State to protect air connectivity routes during the pandemic. We are an island nation, yet as a State we do not have a stake in an airline or ferry company.
The pandemic is having a devastating effect on a host of sectors, but particularly on the aviation sector, which has been largely shut for almost a year. Many workers in the aviation sector have lost their jobs and others in the sector have seen their incomes drop by anything from 50% to 90%. Sinn Féin is conscious of the massive impact that Covid-19 has had on workers in the aviation industry and it has worked closely with unions to ensure airlines fulfil their obligations to workers at this difficult time.
The workers in the sector, especially in Aer Lingus, have been systematically and continually being let down by successive governments. Indeed, Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Fine Gael and the Labour Party were all party to the sell-off of Aer Lingus. Both Sinn Féin and I totally opposed the selling off of the remaining State share of the company at the time, and we remain opposed to it today. The decision was short-sighted and so too are the decisions currently being taken by the Government that are putting Aer Lingus at continuous risk.
Speaking in the Dáil at the selling off of the remaining State share of the company, the Labour Party's Deputy Howlin said that he welcomed "the commitments offered to the existing workforce in Aer Lingus". He went on to state: "As the chief executive officer has indicated to the Minister, he remains committed to an employer-employee engagement model that has unions and the State's industrial relations apparatus at its heart." This was challenged by Sinn Féin at the time and we could see the dangers ahead for Aer Lingus workers. The commitments given appear to have little meaning and the current Government is unwilling to intervene to protect the livelihoods of the workers in Aer Lingus. Not alone did the Labour Party – I believe Deputy Howlin was the leader at the time – sell off the share in Aer Lingus but it also had the neck to lecture the workers that doing so would be for their own good. We all see now the folly of that decision and we do not buy the nonsense that there was no choice. There are always choices in politics. There are always decisions to be made and positions to be taken, and people cannot pick and choose and simply say later that they are sorry or that somebody else made them make the decision when it was clearly not the case.
Across Europe, other states have used relaxed state aid rules to retake shares in their national airlines. Given the severe risk to the future of Irish-based airlines, Sinn Féin previously called on the Government to examine using the €245 million connectivity fund, which was established from the proceeds of the disastrous decision to privatise Aer Lingus fully, to retake a stake in the airline if necessary to support jobs and protect routes. I join my colleague, an Teachta O'Rourke, in asking the Minister of State the status, if any, of the discussions with the National Treasury Management Agency on the connectivity fund.
Speaking of Aer Lingus, it would be remiss of me not to mention the treatment of workers at the airline as they fight to access their social welfare entitlements. A significant number of workers at Aer Lingus who are entitled to short-time work support payments feel that the Department of Social Protection is rejecting their claims because the UP38 forms filled out by the airline do not reflect the true reality of the situation and how they are paid. As a result, the applications of these workers for short-time work support has been rejected by local Intreo offices and the Department of Social Protection. I urge the Government to intervene and address this situation. It has been going on for almost a year now.
On the same theme, that of workers' rights, it is beyond doubt that employment law and the failures of successive governments to rectify it have allowed bogus self-employment to run rampant in this State. From the construction industry and RTÉ to the so called gig-economy, bogus self-employment is a massive problem. The aviation sector is another area where the problem is systemic. Irish pilots have consistently highlighted how Irish employment law facilitates bogus self-employment right across Europe. The Minister of State might believe this is a point better raised with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment – it has been, as far as I know – but the fact that nearly half of all pilots operating in Irish-registered airlines are not employed directly by the airline for whom they fly is a major safety concern, and it should be a worry for the Minister of State. I urge her to bring this matter to the attention of the relevant Ministers and to offer her support for the Sinn Féin Organisation of Working Time (Workers' Rights and Bogus Self-Employment) (Amendment) Bill 2019, which seeks to tackle the scourge of bogus self-employment in this State.
I wish to raise an issue of considerable concern for the residents in the environs of Dublin Airport. Pre-planning discussions have taken place between the aircraft noise competent authority and the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, regarding the noise abatement objective, but only one stakeholder has been invited. The DAA is the only stakeholder that has been invited to these discussions, and the residents who live with the impact of the noise have been excluded. This is not fair and has to be rectified. Will the Minister of State ensure that the residents are invited to participate in discussions on the noise abatement objective?
The DAA has applied for planning permission to change aspects of the conditions on the operation of the new runway at Dublin Airport, yet there has been no public consultation. Will the Minister of State take an interest in this and ensure that the residents are not ignored and that the consultation period is extended to allow for meaningful consultation with all parties, especially those living in the environs of the airport, who are directly impacted by it?
I am thankful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Thousands of workers in the aviation sector, at all levels and grades, are keeping a keen eye on what has been happening in the Dáil and Seanad in recent weeks, and they will also be doing so in the upcoming weeks. While the Labour Party will be supporting this Bill and while, like Sinn Féin, it looks forward to engaging constructively on amendments it will be submitting, we are surprised that, important as it is, the Bill is still about process and still technical. It comes at a time when we are sitting fewer days and for fewer hours to deal specifically with emergency Covid-19-related legislation. I am encouraged by the Minister of State's words to the effect that what needs to be done in the aviation sector will be done, but these words have been stated by the Minister, Taoiseach and Tánaiste for a number of months. While supports have been given to workers through the temporary wage subsidy scheme and employment wage subsidy scheme and while some structural supports have been given to the company, the aviation industry requires a survival package. There is no other way of putting it.
I ask the Minister of State to look at today's letters page in The Irish Times. A letter by Captain Joe May has been published. He is not a constituent of mine but he speaks for a broad constituency of aviation workers. They are not seeing an effort by the Government to save the industry, an important industry that, by its very nature, connects us to the rest of the world and connects our economy to every economy in Europe, North America and beyond and that will ensure, when this pandemic ends, our recovery will be as fast as possible. While they are concerned about the very basics, including financial supports for workers and the questions of whether they can pay their mortgages, cover their bills and retain their jobs, they are also very much concerned about the tenuousness of the structural issues at the airport. Will the airplanes on the ground or in hangars still be in Dublin, Shannon or Cork in a month, two months, three months or six months, or will they be sold off? Any aircraft lost to one of our national airlines means job losses will soon follow. That is a fact. These are genuine concerns. Trade unions and other workers' representative groups are jumping up and down, as it were.
If, as I really hope, talks are taking place at a senior level, can we hear about them? Will the Minister of State give us some confidence that there are supports and a package that will keep the industry in existence until such time as we get through this public health crisis? The workers are as scared and worried about this pandemic as every other person in this country. They understand it and the virulence of the variants. They understand how scary the virus is. They see the numbers of deaths and of people in intensive care, who include their families and friends. There is hardly a family in this country that has not now been touched by this disease, and we probably all know someone who has died from it. The workers understand the impact it is having on their industry, but they also understand it is their industry that will be relied upon to get us out of this.
While this Bill is welcome and needed, it is not at the front line of what aviation workers and their families are seeking from the Government, this House and all of us. That needs to be addressed, in terms of the communications. The public health measures that are being brought in needed to be brought in and the Labour Party supports a national aggressive suppression strategy. As stated by a previous speaker, bringing in such an aggressive strategy to keep the virus down should not be seen as being contrary or set against the need to protect the aviation industry or as an attack on the aviation industry. The reason we need a national aggressive suppression strategy is so the economy can reopen and workers can go back to their jobs, including the aviation industry and the support industries around it. They need to be looked at as two sides of the same coin moving forward together.
I am concerned, particularly following public utterances of the Tánaiste, that this will involve an adversarial approach. When this House is discussing mandatory hotel quarantine under the legislation which will apparently take weeks, which is very disappointing, I am concerned it will be set as an adversarial approach to the aviation industry. The aviation industry is an innocent victim of what has happened with Covid-19. There are thousands of families out there looking for leadership and protections. We really need it. There is a whole communications piece that needs to be done by the Government that it has failed on. I am encouraged by the words of the Minister of State in her opening statement but they need to be stronger and backed up by visible action that people support. There are very few industries and workers in this country who are as politically engaged as people who have worked in the aviation sector. They have gone through many recessions and privatisations. They have gone through an awful lot, so no one will pull the wool over their eyes, no matter what they say in this Chamber. Everyone in the aviation sector is wise to the realities of their sector. We all need to be careful about how we speak to the workers and how truthful we are to them about what is going on. There is a gap in what the Government is saying and what it is offering to those workers and that sector.
There are some issues with the substance of the Bill. The Bill is welcome, we support it and it makes sense. However, similar to an Teachta O'Rourke earlier, we will look to bring amendments in relation to the need for graduated sanctions. At the moment, the only sanction imposed on entities, be they airlines, maintenance organisations, airports or licence holders, is a revocation of their licence or permit. Many times that is not commensurate to a failing or misstep but, at the same time, some sanction needs to be given. This Bill is an opportunity to do that in detail and well.
I am delighted the Minister of State has acknowledged the work of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. The transport committee still feels like a new committee but we are very committed and we put an awful lot of work into that report. There are sensible proposals in it. I hope any amendments to this Bill brought forward by me or other members of that committee through our parties will be seen as sensible and constructive in a similar way to the work we do through the committee.
There is a cultural issue in relation to aviation and how the stakeholders in aviation are dealt with. It is hard to discuss that through legislation but it does not make it any less real or tangible or in any way less in need of discussion. We have issues where workers' organisations representing licence holders have been excluded from certain forums at the request of larger stakeholders. That is a huge problem which feeds into a culture of diminishing workers' rights in the industry, continues to push down on the trade unions and gives primacy to large companies that have poor records in this regard. By virtue of having these stakeholders, workers and trade unions excluded, the companies put themselves in a leadership position in terms of driving policy which is not, in many areas, to the betterment of workers. That needs to be looked at and we will bring amendments on the issue. It feeds into issues relating to working time, workers in the industry being classed as flexible workers and the impact that has on them seeking justice through the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, or the industrial relations architecture of the State. There are other issues in relation to peer support programmes and charters. It is a question of acknowledging the role that workers of all grades play, bringing them into the process and developing a collective culture in the regulation of the industry. There is an opportunity to do that in this Bill and I hope we will do so.
I want to hammer home the fact that the aviation industry requires a survival package. There are many complex issues in relation to aviation. There are issues related to noise regulation. I echo the calls of the previous speaker on extending the consultation period and bringing the residents in. I have put in my own submission on that. The DAA and others are seeking to have planning conditions set aside in advance of the runway being built and brought into operation. It has not even been tested. That is really damaging to An Bord Pleanála and the planning and decision-making architecture of the State. It is like saying, "Okay, you have made a decision but we disagree with it so straight away we are going to ask for it to be set aside by just making the same case over and over again." That is not good enough. The residents' voices need to be heard and should always be heard on that.
There is some reference to climate issues in this Bill in terms of the medium-term responsibility that the aviation sector has in relation to climate. At the moment, it is having a minimal impact on climate because everything is grounded. In the medium and long term, there are huge questions and challenges in relation to that. Everyone, including the workers, needs to be included. We will always need a strong aviation industry in this country, by nature of the fact that we are an island.
These are hugely complex issues. As we role out vaccinations, I hope the Government will take on board the approach of the Labour Party and others in relation to a national aggressive suppression strategy - zero-Covid or whatever - to get the numbers down and keep them down. When we call upon our aviation sector, it has to be there. The only body that is able to ensure that is our national Government. It has been done all over Europe in partner states. There is a whole list, which has been printed again this week, of the hundreds of millions that have gone into airlines in more or less all EU member states. Yet here, on an island on the coast of Europe, we have not supported the industry in that regard. That needs to be tackled and addressed.
I thank the Minister of State for being in the Chamber to take questions and contributions from Members. Fianna Fáil fully supports the Air Navigation and Transport Bill 2020. This Bill provides for the institutional reorganisation of aviation regulation in Ireland. The legislation will contribute to best practice approaches and ensure the aviation regulator is fit for purpose for emerging challenges over the coming decades. Currently, aviation regulation is split between the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, and the Commission for Aviation Regulation. The IAA is also involved in the provision of some for-profit air navigation services. Its dual commercial-regulatory mandate is an outlier in a European and international context.
While the IAA is highly regarded at home and abroad, it is difficult to argue for its current functions to persist, given that it is a State body with important non-commercial oversight functions and, at the same time, a commercial mandate to run a service for profit.
I wish to make a few more general points about aviation. The Government has thus far been very good to aviation, with more than €80 million having been channelled into propping up the sector, which, along with tourism, has been most exposed to the ravages of Covid. Operational capital funding of €22 million was provided for Cork and Shannon Airports and additional regional airport funding for Knock, Kerry and Donegal airports has also been sanctioned. When the Minister of State was concluding her contribution a short time ago, she stated that if more is needed to be done, it will be done. That has to be the starting point for actions hereafter.
We have all received quite a number of emails during the week from the Irish Airline Pilots Association, IALPA, and from members of ground crews and flight crews and all those who work in operations and maintenance, repair and overhaul, MRO. I am very concerned about Lufthansa Technik and all the other MRO companies based around Shannon Airport in my constituency of Clare. They can function only when aircraft are landing at airports and requiring maintenance, and that simply is not happening. It is an ancillary service to aviation that is floundering and it will require State support.
There is a severe imbalance in aviation and the Minister of State gets this because this point has been made to her repeatedly. The market share that Dublin Airport holds has increased year on year in comparison with other airports, to the detriment mostly of Shannon Airport, and to a lesser extent, of Cork Airport. We will need a new aviation policy to take this country beyond Covid. Some good suggestions have been made to the Minister of State and the Department. The Copenhagen Economics report, commissioned by Limerick Chamber, is one of the best documents I have seen. It looked at other countries such as Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, where aviation policy has been turned on its head. There are now requirements that a certain quota of flights come into the regional airports rather than having everything channelled into the capital city airports. That is good and we need to consider such a measure in Ireland as well. There should not be this imbalance going forward. This low starting point, in the depths of Covid, is the perfect time to overhaul aviation policy.
There is a cargo future for Irish aviation and Shannon Airport is positioned to exploit it best. Only 1% of all cargo leaving Ireland is airborne and that could be greatly enhanced. There was some potentially good news this week, with Amazon looking at developing a distribution node at Shannon Airport. Ciaran Callaghan and Damien O'Regan have been in correspondence with the Department about the possibility of a new form of cargo hub, again at Shannon Airport. It has a really long runway with the capacity to take the largest jets in the world, and it is the perfect stepping stone from North America to continental Europe. Our first, tumultuous month of Brexit is behind us and we need to consider enhanced connectivity. It is not all about the land bridge; we need to consider an air bridge as well, and Shannon Airport provides that opportunity, so I ask the Minister of State to consider that.
Covid will linger for quite some time. PCR testing is not costed similarly throughout the European Union and there is significant variation, at €140 or €150 in Ireland and other countries, while in Spain and North Macedonia, the very same gold-standard test costs €30. A Ryanair flight, FR7124, will take off at 6.25 a.m. on Saturday next from Dublin Airport and land about three hours later in Lanzarote. That is not essential travel by any metric. I did not get to listen to "Liveline" earlier but I heard that a lady called the show, incredibly, from her balcony in an apartment in Spain, justifying why she should be out there. That is not essential travel. We will only get full buy-in to these restrictions, which nobody likes but which we need, when non-essential flights stop happening. That runs against everything I have been saying for many months, but right now we are at peak Covid and this should not be happening.
Air fare refunds continue to be a big issue. There is a crazy case in my constituency, where 80 students from St. Joseph's Secondary School in Tulla were due to fly to Barcelona last year for a school tour. Ryanair still owes them €17,500 in air fare refunds but it is playing molly bán, saying it cannot refund the travel agency that booked the trip but that it can refund the individuals. It does not work like that and Ryanair needs to step up to the plate and provide the refunds.
Covid presents opportunities. Business jets are not the domain just of the Kardashians and people who wear bling and gold chains. Many multinational companies bring their staff into and out of Ireland using business jets. Shannon Airport, along with Aruba and the Bahamas, has a singular advantage in that it offers pre-clearance on flights to America. There is a problem, however. Currently, about 1,500 jets a year fly between Ireland and America, but that could be increased four or fivefold. We have reach to 220 airports but that figure could increase to 900 if we were able to overcome a client-catering issue. Food that is served on flights needs to be incinerated at the end of the journey. A new procedure, called the agricultural pre-clearance test programme, was trialled by the US Government in 2018 and was successful. It would open up significant opportunities for Ireland but it needs to be made permanent. I have written to the Biden Administration and the US ambassador to Ireland. The matter is now with the US Department of Agriculture and I implore the Minister of State and the Department to push ahead with that regulation to open the considerable opportunities for Shannon Airport and other airports to better exploit private aviation and the spin-off benefit that has for the communities and regions that surround them.
I wish to raise issues with the IAA pension scheme and with the treatment of those with an IAA pension and the provisions they have been given. I have raised this matter with the Minister of State through parliamentary questions, and while I understand that she views it, technically, as a private pension scheme, it is fair to say she has some role in its governance. I ask her to meet those who are affected and in receipt of an IAA pension. They have engaged with the IAA board and the Department and are unhappy with the results thus far. I understand that these matters have been referred by the Fórsa trade union to the Minister under section 41(7) of the Irish Aviation Authority Act 1993. I ask that the Minister of State consider meeting these people and hearing their concerns.
I take this opportunity to acknowledge the strains that Covid-19 have put on those working for airlines. While we understand that people should not travel at the moment unless it is an emergency, we must remember that in March 2020, Ryanair employed more than 17,000 staff and Aer Lingus more than 4,000. I have been contacted daily by some of these people who live in my constituency of Cork North-Central and they are very concerned. The Government needs to enhance the supports available to these workers. They cannot be forgotten about. As I am sure the Minister of State will understand, every time a return to international travel is pushed further away, these workers suffer. In most cases, these people have been out of work for ten months, with no return in sight - no mortgage breaks, no fuel allowance, no additional supports. These workers and their families are concerned and even scared. Without Government supports, these people, who may never have struggled financially before, are really suffering, and it will only get worse in the coming months.
We in Sinn Féin have brought forward a wide range of solutions to many of the problems faced by those experiencing financial difficulty in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. I urge the Minister of State to stop dismissing our proposals and solutions and to start listening to our ideas because we want to help ordinary people and families through this crisis.