Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

10:00 am

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to raise the matter of the Dublin-Derry air service. A number of years ago, everyone became excited when Pádraig Ó Céide of Aer Arann agreed, without the provision of any subsidies, to set up operations at Derry Airport to try to progress a service between Derry and Dublin. At the time, Donegal County Council did its best to provide assistance. The issue of State aid stopped or stymied the best possible service and we only took what we got. The service was operational from almost midday, which was not the best timing so the uptake was not great.

People in Donegal must get to Dublin early. Although people in Dublin do not need to get to Donegal as early, they must be able to return having had a reasonable amount of time to carry out work. Many Ministers have been able to come up, do a day's work and get back in a reasonable time with the current PSO, awarded to Loganair under BA.

I am concerned. A new PSO is to launched on the 22 July. Loganair-BA had the service, operating a 36-seater which left Derry at approximately 7.30 a.m. and arrived at Dublin at approximately 8.10 a.m, which meant a person could get to Dublin city by 9 a.m. or 9.30 a.m. The person could do a day's work and leave at approximately 6.30 p.m. with the air service. The return service left Dublin at 9 a.m. and got to Derry at approximately 9.40 a.m.; it would then leave Derry at approximately 5.10 p.m., reaching Dublin by 6 p.m. The flight would overnight in Derry. It was an ideal situation.

We have a new PSO and I am delighted Aer Arann has returned to receive it. I look forward to the service consisting of a 48-seater instead of a 36-seater as the demand has been such that the 36-seater was often full and many businesspeople were not able to get a flight when they needed one. The bigger plane will be very important.

I am in a difficult position in that although I welcome the new service and the competitiveness of Aer Arann, the departure will now be from Dublin instead of Derry. It will not be able to leave Derry until 8.40 a.m. to arrive in Dublin by 9.30 a.m. if on time. This means a person getting to the airport by 9.30 a.m. will need until 10.30 a.m. or 11 a.m. to be able to start a day's work in Dublin. It might sound reasonable to some but it would be more reasonable if a person was to arrive in Derry at that time for a meeting at 10.30 a.m. or 11 a.m. Most people need to be in Dublin earlier than that, even when there is no delay and the service has run like clockwork.

I have been approached by a significant number of people from the business community who would have been regular users of the previous service and they are very upset. They are worried that they will have to consider the alternative of coming to Dublin the night before for an overnight stay or getting into the car for a four-hour journey because there is no train service. They are also considering connections to US and European destinations, as many of those are mid-morning or late morning slots, and we are not sure this new service will facilitate a quick enough turnaround time for travellers going from Derry to Dublin and on to another destination.

The new 8.40 a.m. service is also very close to the very busy 8.50 a.m. Ryanair flight to London. Although the ground staff in Derry are excellent, very friendly and great people, the reality is the airport is not set up for two busy flights going out at the same time. There could be a bottleneck at check-in and security, and I have been caught in that a couple of times.

The service provides a vital commercial link for the business community in the north west, which has been growing. This 48-seater service would improve that growth. Some people may wish to know why Donegal people want to know about Derry city airport but between 48% and 51% of passengers are from my part of Donegal. We are worried that this change of timing and the fact that the plane is not based in Derry will alienate the people using it as it is the only way for a business person to operate other than getting into a car and driving.

The ground handling manager in Derry city airport has indicated its preference is to retain the existing schedule. Aer Arann is restricted in its operating times as it is now based in Dublin because of the PSO agreed by the Department. It is also restricted by available slots in Dublin, although this relates to it having to base an operation out of Dublin.

According to Derry City Airport, Aer Arann has indicated that although it will start with a schedule, it will take into account passenger opinions and load factors to revise timings and possibly even base an aircraft in Derry. People are wondering why if Aer Arann can make the decision, it does not make it now. When I spoke to Aer Arann I was told it cannot make it because the option was given to the Department but not accepted.

It will be very difficult to prove the case. If people walk away from this service it will be very difficult to sustain the investment made by the Government. Aer Arann has indicated that upon application for tender, it proposed two schedules to the Government, the first being an early morning departure and the second being the 8.40 a.m. departure. Upon award of the contract, the airline was advised to operate the latter departure time and once slots were confirmed, the schedule was published. The airline put the issue firmly back to the Department.

This involves a PSO and runway development, which are major investments for the Government. I underline our appreciation of the serious investment made by this Government in the Derry airport for the good of the north west, its business travellers and all kinds of commuters.

When the service began, Belfast's international and city airports sent letters to MLAs and MPs asking them to stop it at any cost. They saw Derry as a competitive service, which would undermine Belfast's airports if people used Dublin as a gateway. We have worked very hard to have a successful service operating from the north west. It was a success because the aircraft was based in Derry.

Why did the PSO not remain as it was for an aircraft based out of the North, which facilitated people getting out of the north west early to get to Dublin, where they must arrive early? It should not be as it is now, where I would have to try to get to the airport for 6 a.m. to sign in and be in Derry much earlier than I would need to be if I was a business person. It does not make sense.

I would hate to think this service will fall at a time when we are giving it such investment. It does not make sense to break what was not broken.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State with special responsibility for Road Safety, Department of Transport; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Keaveney for raising the matter but it is up to the airlines to come up with the most attractive packages in terms of price and operational arrangements, such as aircraft types and service timetables, which meet the basic specifications laid down for the PSO programme.

I have heard what the Senator stated in that when this flight began, there were no subsidies. There is now a very considerable subsidy, which the Senator acknowledged. Having considered such information, it is very hard to understand the story that the Department laid down the schedule in question. It is for the airline, subject to the terms of the PSO programme, to come up with the plan. In the case of the Derry route, a bid submitted by Aer Arann emerged as the very clear winner, having scored higher than the competing bids in both price and non-price terms.

In terms of proposed operating timetables, the bid met the requirement as set out in the specification published in the EU Official Journal, which stipulates that on any weekday, it should be possible for passengers from Derry to make a round trip to Dublin. Perhaps the Senator is arguing that the specifications were too loose. Nonetheless, this very competitive bid met the specifications and criteria we laid down.

Under the arrangements that apply to the Derry service at present, there is a weekday departure from Derry at 7.40 a.m. followed by a flight back to Derry which leaves Dublin at 9 a.m. It was clear from the tenders received for the new round of contracts that maintaining that type of schedule by basing an aircraft at Derry, for example, would have meant choosing a tender that involved a higher cost and had received a lower score. Not surprisingly, the evaluation panel favoured the Aer Arann bid.

The decision on the new Derry contract is fully consistent with the existing specifications for public service obligation services and with the rules for evaluating PSO tenders. If these were to be changed, for example, to introduce more specific requirements about scheduling, the way would be clear for a significant escalation in costs which would immediately call into question the continued viability of the PSO programme.

Aer Arann is anxious to make a success of the new service and it is mindful of the views of its customers. I understand a small change to the timetable is planned and Aer Arann now proposes to change the Derry morning departure, from Monday to Thursday, to 8.30 a.m. The company will also keep the schedule under review to see what opportunities may arise for further adjustments in the future within the framework of its successful tender.

The bid scored well on price and other aspects and met the criteria laid down. Satisfying the case put forward by the Senator would have meant ignoring costs and our own scoring system.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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The executive officer of Derry City Council said it was consulted at an early stage. The council advised that its preference was to retain the existing schedule and that if this was not possible, it would have liked the new schedule to be as close to the old schedule as possible. The plane is now an hour later leaving Derry and I do not know who will be able to get up early enough for the flight from Dublin to Derry.

Given that the current PSO is for a plane staying in Derry overnight and the perfect timing can be seen by all, will the Minister of State come back to me in the near future on whether a similar bid was tabled? I accept that one thing can be cheaper than another but we wanted to retain what we had in Derry. I do not underestimate Aer Arann's desire to make this work. We just want to use our experience to help this to work for that company and for ourselves.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 June 2008.