Thursday, 16 September 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
80. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the status of the appointment of the CEO for the Shannon Group and the proposed review of the Shannon Group governance structures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44157/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 74 and 80 together.
The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and I have recently concluded interviews for potential candidates, who were proposed by the Public Appointments Service. All five people we interviewed were eminently qualified, which makes for a difficult decision. We hope to conclude that process within the coming days, and return to the Government and then to the Dáil with details of the appointment of a suitable chair. I am confident that we will be able to get someone who is very well qualified for the role.
The chairperson, whoever takes on the job, will have a very real challenge. As the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, said earlier, we are in an environment where still, to this day, the American Government is effectively restricting transatlantic traffic. There will probably be a slow return. There is no immediate return in sight of business travel and while there has been a significant return to travel for personal reasons, holidays and so on, it is still at a very low level compared to what was happening historically. One should not underestimate the challenge and crisis our aviation sector is in - Shannon Airport as much as any other airport.
I am encouraged since talking to officials this week that we are seeing a number of flights planned for right through the winter. The Shannon Airport to Heathrow Airport route has been restored, but there is only one flight per day. We would like to see that back to its pre-pandemic schedule of three flights per day in order that it facilitates business traffic. Whoever the chair is will have to work with what I see as a very good management team in the airport to get flights back. It will help that the group has been focused down now on the industrial estate building and the airport operations. It is appropriate that the heritage role has been taken on by the county council and local authorities. It is, therefore, focused and tighter. The job is to get those flights back and the region with them.
I thank the Minister. I want to thank his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for coming on site to the airport two weeks ago and seeing first-hand all the preparatory work that is under way to ready ourselves for the season ahead.
It was August of last year when Rose Hynes stepped down as chairperson of the board. We then saw an appointment process getting under way and that ran until February when Aaron Forde was appointed. His tenure lasted a matter of hours; that was a botched exercise really. We then asked that this process be slowed down ever so slightly to get the right person. We do not want someone with an agribusiness or economist background. We need someone in Shannon who understands aviation to be the helmsman or helmswoman of an airport that for decades has been the economic catalyst in the midwest. I am keen to know what kind of timeframe the Minister is talking about here because we have had delays. We asked the Minister to slow it down ever so slightly. We were talking about weeks at the time, and certainly not the 13 months at which we now find ourselves since the departure of Rose Hynes. I would love to know whether it will happen this month because we are really looking for some direction where Shannon Airport is concerned.
We know that Shannon Airport is a great driver of economic growth in the midwest region. Shannon Group comprises Shannon Airport, Shannon Commercial Properties and Shannon International Aviation Services Centre. I also seek an update on the appointment of the chairperson for the Shannon Group governance structures.
To answer Deputy’s Crowe’s point, we expect to be able to do it this month. That delay or that sequence of events was unfortunate.
It was done at a time when the airport was effectively closed because of the Covid crisis. Now is the time to come back to get that chair in place. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to answer the question too because she is centrally involved, and to give her perspective on the approach.
The Minister and I are acutely aware of the importance of putting in place a chair of Shannon Group and I am listening very closely to the concerns of Oireachtas Members. We share those concerns about the future of Shannon Airport and the need for leadership there in terms of a chair being put in place. As the Minister has said, I commend Mary Considine and the management team there who have steered the airport through the most difficult time and all the staff, in terms of the pressures they are under due to Covid-19. This is an absolute priority for us and we need somebody who can show that leadership, not only for the airport but for the midwest region.
It is not just a geographical stepping stone between Europe and the United States; Shannon Airport offers much more than that. We have the pre-clearance facility in Shannon which is so important. We need to see that back up and fully functioning again. In the past number of weeks, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was in the airport to open and see at first hand the new baggage screening facility which is unique in Europe. It is a €12 million facility backed hugely by the Government. It is unique in Europe in that the United States and European security requirements are now perfectly aligned in Shannon Airport for screening baggage. Along with pre-clearance, that gives us an edge over other European airports, but we need to drive it on more now. We need to see planes back in the sky. I am delighted we are hearing that United Airlines should be back there in the springtime. That is certainly something we need to see. In the Minister's concluding remarks, I ask him to refer to policy proposals I submitted to both him and the Minister of State some weeks back, to note if his Department looked at them. Much has been done for Shannon Airport but a hell of a lot more is needed. Until we have planes back in the sky, we will not see a full recovery of our airport and the many people who depend on it.
The role of the Minister and the Department in appointing the members of the board is also questionable. This is further exacerbated and demonstrated in that the track record is far from impressive. First, we had a six-month gap from the exiting of Rose Hynes in August 2020 and here we are, over 12 months later, with the appointment still left vacant. That is completely unacceptable and on the ground, the Clare folk feel the exact same. They do not want excuses any longer. They want results. The Minister also committed to undertaking a review of the Shannon Group structures in August 2020. We still have no conclusions or results from that either. This goes hand in hand and what the Clare folk would say is "actions speak louder than words". We have no confidence or faith in this Government giving Shannon Airport the priority it deserves and needs.
We followed the appropriate Public Appointments Service approach here and it is absolutely correct and proper. Unfortunate circumstances meant we had to run a second process but that could not have been foreseen. It was appropriate for us to respond in the way we did. The Public Appointments Service has done a good job. From what I have seen, it carried it out properly. It did take time but sometime this takes time rather than being rushed and I am confident the right approach was taken.
I concur with the Minister. Deputy Crowe was right about the US pre-clearance in that Shannon Airport has an edge. As he knows, certain things are out of our control because these severe entry restrictions are on the US side but I assure him there are a number of bilaterals happening at EU level with the US and between Ireland, the Taoiseach and the US. We understand the importance of that. With regard to Shannon Group, there is restructuring around the heritage sites, as a result of that review process. The number one ask has been the reopening of international travel. That has happened. As I said earlier, in my previous replies, we are also looking at further supports for the aviation sector. Shannon Airport, Cork Airport and all of our airports will be part of that ongoing process.