Thursday, 16 September 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
64. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the status of the implementation of the recommendations of the aviation task force report and the aviation restart plan; his plans to sustain the aviation sector and aviation jobs over the upcoming winter period; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44104/21]
Will the Minister of State provide an update on the implementation of the recommendations of the aviation task force report and the aviation restart plan and what plans there are to sustain the aviation sector and aviation jobs over the coming winter period?
The Irish aviation sector is critical to Ireland's economic development by being a key enabler of international trade and business, including foreign direct investment and tourism. However, the impact of Covid-19 on travel is the most challenging crisis in its history. Many analysts are predicting that it will take several years for the sector to return to 2019 levels of activity. While air traffic data for Europe show some recovery, the pace of recovery is still slow in the Irish market, with traffic currently at approximately 50% of 2019 levels.
The Government has put in place a range of supports for businesses, including those in the aviation sector. These supports include: the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS; waiving of commercial rates; deferral of tax liabilities; the Covid restrictions support scheme; the credit guarantee scheme; and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, working capital scheme, with some of these now extended to the end of the year. My Department has estimated that Irish airlines and airports have availed of over €300 million through a number of these supports to date. Furthermore, liquidity funding has been provided through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund, bringing funding to almost €500 million.
As regards supports specifically targeted at the protection of employment, the EWSS has been a key component of the Government's response to Covid-19 and has been extended to the end of the year. In November 2020, in recognition of the difficult circumstances facing the aviation sector, the Government agreed a revised funding package of €80 million specifically for Irish aviation. The European Commission has approved, under state aid rules, a €26 million Irish state aid scheme to compensate airport operators for the losses caused by Covid-19.
The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I have continued to engage with all aviation stakeholders throughout the Covid crisis, including through the National Civil Aviation Development Forum, NCADF. Separately, the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, brings together representatives of employers and trade unions with Ministers to discuss economic, employment and labour market issues. The LEEF has played an important role during the crisis. In March, a LEEF aviation subgroup was established to consider the needs of the sector. I chair this subgroup and it has held five meetings since March, most recently on 14 September.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
The Government's economic recovery plan, published on 1 June, recognised that further targeted supports may be required later in 2021 to assist the restoration of Ireland's air links and to protect jobs in the sector, and my officials are currently considering options in this area.
Most of the recommendations from the aviation recovery task force's final report of July 2020 and the NCADF aviation restart plan of April 2021 have been progressed insofar as practicably possible. For example, non-essential international travel was permitted to resume on 19 July. The EU digital Covid certification system has been successfully introduced in Ireland, wage subsidies have been extended, other targeted financial supports have been made available, slot alleviation measures for airlines have been implemented, and EU Aviation Safety Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control protocols for safe air travel have been fully implemented. My Department will forward a report to the Deputy, in tabular format, on the status of the implementation of each of the recommendations from both reports.
Ultimately, I believe the continued successful roll-out of the vaccination programme and reduced risk of transmission of the virus will provide the basis for the return of consumer confidence and an increase in forward bookings. With continued support from the Government during the coming months, the sector will be well placed for strong recovery next year.
I thank the Minister of State for that update. She outlined well the challenges facing the sector. Covid has had a major impact everywhere. Now it is a question of how we recover. While I appreciate the extension of the EWSS until the end of the year, the Minister of State and I know that the season is over and will only pick up again around St. Patrick's Day of next year. That is what the industry tells us.
Is consideration being given to extending the EWSS beyond the end of the year? I understand that there were proposals from unions at the LEEF regarding an aviation-specific EWSS, a German-type model or however it might be termed. I am asking about wage subsidy supports for workers in the sector.
We are having constructive conversations with trade unions and employer groups as part of the LEEF subgroup, which is helping this engagement on the needs of the sector. In the Government's economic recovery plan, which was published on 1 June, we were clear that aviation was one of the sectors that would take longer to recover. Officials in my Department are considering further supports for the sector in order to protect jobs and ensure that we can restore much of our key connectivity at international level. Our airports know their business best. These supports would enable the airports to ensure such a restoration.
The number one call from the aviation industry was to reopen international travel, which we did on 19 July. Regarding further extensions of the EWSS, that will be a matter for the Minister for Finance and other Government colleagues, but I assure the House that all of these matters are under consideration.
I wish to make a couple of follow-up points. A number of recommendations in the aviation task force report specifically targeted the aviation environment. Recommendations Nos. 5 and 6 related to rebates and a common fixed sum per passenger. Have these measures been considered? Will they be included in the budget or among upcoming supports for the sector?
The issue of transatlantic travel is of major concern for the sector. It is a large part of the market. To what extent has there been engagement to try to reopen it?
As the Deputy knows, the European Commission gave us approval under EU state aid rules for €26 million to compensate airports for the damages caused by Covid-19. My objective was to enable commercial business within airports and allow them to deal directly with airlines in terms of route incentives and the issues the Deputy raised. That is the business of our airports, and the Government has enabled them by providing funding. This forms part of our Department's deliberations with the aviation sector.
The Deputy is correct regarding transatlantic flights. They are critical for us - I do not need to explain why. There is considerable engagement happening at EU level as well as at Irish level within the Departments of Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach. As the Deputy knows, the US Administration has put in place severe entry restrictions, but there is ongoing engagement around opening those lines of connectivity up again.