Tuesday, 21 June 2016
Air Services Provision
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me raise this matter of importance. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ross, to the House. I raise the important issue of Cork Airport and the link with the United States of America. As the Cathaoirleach is well aware, last year Cork City Council, Cork County Council and the tourism bodies lent support to the publication earlier this year of the Growing Tourism in Cork strategy. Central to that is the importance of Cork Airport and the need to see it connected with routes to North America. Last year, 2015, was a good one for Cork Airport which saw the opening of 12 new routes and improved passenger numbers. With the EU-US Open Skies agreement, now is the opportune time to have a transatlantic link between Cork and North America. Norwegian Airlines stepped in and offered to provide a service between Cork and Boston, and prior to the dissolution of the Dáil and the general election, ongoing efforts were made at Government and EU level to have this link established. However, there is an impasse on the American side.The European Commission's Director General for Mobility and Transport was in Washington recently negotiating and pleading with the US authorities regarding the need to have this transatlantic link established.
I commend the Minister, Deputy Ross, for his earlier comments on this very important issue. It is economically important for job creation, tourism and increasing footfall into Cork and the wider Munster region, but it also concerns the EU-US Open Skies agreement. It is meant to stimulate the sector and see passenger numbers and travel eased and more options available to people as passengers. We have a carrier in Norwegian Air International that is willing to provide this link, and the US cannot be allowed for whatever reason to pick and choose or engage in selectivism in how it allows for airlines or carriers to be involved.
I am conscious of the time and appreciative of the fact that I am raising this matter as Leader of the House, but it is a very important economic matter. It concerns the granting of a licence. It is about ensuring that the people in the area where I live and where the Cathaoirleach lives have that choice and that we can continue to grow the numbers in Cork Airport. To be fair to the staff in Cork Airport, they have been putting together a submission based on the creation of jobs and new routes. In a week when the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, visits Ireland, would it not have been opportune for the Vice President perhaps to have been here as part of the new transatlantic route out of Cork? I hope that we can raise the matter with Vice President Biden during the course of his visit.
I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this subject. It is a good day to raise it, and I hope the message goes out to Vice President Biden that we are not happy with the behaviour of various groups in the United States over this blockage of an airline landing in the United States. Senator Buttimer will also be aware that the Taoiseach has already raised this with the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and it has been raised at various levels around the world, certainly at EU level. I met the EU Commissioner early last week and mentioned it to her. She said that she was sick and tired of making telephone calls about this and that I could make that public and that they were tired of listening to her. They are making every effort.
This delay is totally unacceptable. It would be opportune if the American Government moved on the issue fairly promptly and it would certainly be opportune if Vice President Biden made a statement on it in the coming days. In this context I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this matter, which has been raised with me on a number of occasions and which I know is very important to the people of Cork and surrounding counties. It is not just a Cork issue; it is an issue which affects us nationally and affects the international flying world.
Cork Airport is recognised by the national aviation policy as a unique gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way and to Ireland's Ancient East, the two main tourism promotion initiatives currently underway. Passenger numbers have fallen at Cork Airport each year since 2009 and have been slower to recover than at Dublin and Shannon airports. A total of 2.07 million passengers travelled through Cork Airport in 2015, a decrease of 3.4% on 2014. Significantly, however, passenger numbers began to recover in the final quarter of last year, and this positive trend has continued in 2016, with growth of 8% up to the end of May this year. Cork Airport will launch nine new routes and services in 2016 and believes that passenger growth could be up by 8% for the year as a whole. I am hopeful that one of these new routes will be the service to Boston by Norwegian Air International.
NAI was licensed as an Irish airline in February 2014. In August 2015 the airline announced plans to operate transatlantic services from Cork Airport, which was very welcome to us. However, in February 2016 the airline had to postpone the launch of these services because the US Department of Transportation had not yet granted the airline a foreign carrier air permit. This is a very regrettable situation as the proposed Cork-to-Boston route would be the first such transatlantic service from Cork and would be a very welcome boost to Cork Airport and the wider region. It is my understanding that this is the first instance since the EU-US Open Skies agreement was introduced in 2008 that an airline has been prevented from launching a new transatlantic service due to a delay in approval being granted by the US authorities.We say this as a friend of the US and we are puzzled by the fact it cannot reciprocate. This delay is clearly not in the interest of the many people on both sides of the Atlantic who had intended to avail of the new service.
When the EU-US open skies agreement was introduced, it set an example to the rest of the world of the benefits of the open skies policy and it had the interests of the customer at its heart. The agreement was designed to encourage the type of new competition that the Norwegian group offers. A tentative decision was made by the US Department of Transportation on 15 April last to grant the permit to Norwegian Air International, NAI. This tentative decision was the subject of a public consultation which concluded in May and there is no clear timetable for a final decision to be made. However, I look forward to that decision being confirmed as soon as possible so that the airline can start operating the new route from Cork to Boston and other new transatlantic routes.
This Government and the previous Government have supported NAI and the Cork to Boston route. My predecessor, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade have all made the case for NAI to the US authorities on many occasions. I delivered the opening address at the recent IATA AGM, my first aviation-related public engagement and I reiterated this support for NAI. In my address I emphasised my deep regret over the delay in granting the permit to NAI and the need for a continued move towards increased competition and further liberalisation in the aviation sector. The European Commission has also been supportive of NAI from the outset. Most recently, as referred to by Senator Buttimer, the EU Director General for Transport made strong public statements in support of NAI. The Commission has confirmed that it reserves the right to take action under the agreement, including initiating a formal arbitration. I hope that by confirming the tentative decision and granting NAI its permit there will be no need for this next step to be taken. In the meantime, I and the Department will continue to liaise closely with the Irish Embassy in Washington, the Irish Aviation Authority and the European Commission, and we will continue to take the appropriate steps to help secure this important new service for Cork.
I thank the Minister for his support and for the endeavours he has undertaken on behalf not only of the Department but also of the people of Ireland. I speak as a friend of the United States and not as a foe in the context of promoting the EU-US open skies agreement and the need for the permit to be issued immediately. The Minister is correct in his remarks. We need to see arbitration. This is about the EU-US open skies policy. I hope that during the course of the visit of Vice President Biden that members of the Government will impress upon him the importance and centrality of this new route from Cork in promoting our country in North America.
I endorse and echo what Senator Buttimer has said. I will not meet Vice President Biden, but I hope that anyone from the Government who does meet him will make clear our dissatisfaction with the attitude in the US to this and the fact that we, as friends of the United States, can expect, I hope, an early decision to clear this blockage.