Seanad debates

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

State Airports

2:30 pm

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to attend this critical debate on Shannon Airport, the entire western region and, particularly, my city, Limerick. The Minister is well aware of my interest in this area. I first raised the matter of Shannon Airport getting major European hub connectivity with him in the House on 6 December. Shannon Airport is the only international airport in Ireland which does not have major European hub connectivity on a year-on basis. While it has great connectivity through Heathrow, Dublin Airport has umpteen hub connections. I accept it serves the capital city and that is important. Cork Airport has good European hub connectivity through Amsterdam with two daily flights and Paris with one daily flight. Shannon Airport, however, has no direct European hub connectivity.

I raised the matter with the Minister on 6 December. I followed it up with a meeting on Wednesday, 6 February, with the Shannon Airport management group and the Minister at which I put forward the argument that a Brexit strategic route development fund should be established. It was a constructive meeting and, on foot of it, the Minister requested and encouraged Shannon Airport management group to make a submission to his Department on a route development strategy into a main European hub. I understand this submission was made to the Minister and the Department by the group on 21 March.

The context of this is straightforward. Shannon is a key economic driver for the entire mid-west region, the western region and Limerick city. The airport is doing well but it has major excess capacity. Last year it served 1.86 million passengers but it has a capacity for 4.5 million passengers. Accordingly, it is operating at just over 40% of its capacity and could accommodate 2.6 million extra passengers. Dublin Airport is under severe pressure and the percentage of passengers its deals with is increasing. In 2005, it accounted for 72% of all air passengers. In the first quarter of 2019, however, Dublin Airport accounted for 87% while Shannon accounted for just under 4% and Cork over 6% of passenger numbers.We are looking to drive economic growth outside Dublin exponentially under Project Ireland 2040. Shannon Airport must be a key element of this. The Minister's national aviation policy, the latest update of which appeared in February this year, talks about maximising the contribution of the aviation sector to Ireland's economic growth and development. In terms of individual airports, the Government is looking to attract new business and sustainable development to drive local economies.

I am asking for an update regarding a submission from Shannon Group to the Minister and Department on 21 March on foot of a meeting I organised with the management of Shannon Group on Wednesday, 6 February. Where is that proposal? We have very good connectivity through Heathrow Airport involving daily flights. In light of Brexit, We need to complement that with major European hub connectivity. Establishing a route out of Shannon Airport to a major European hub is critical in terms of Project Ireland 2040, Shannon Airport and, more particularly, the western region and my home city of Limerick.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Dublin Rathdown, Independent)
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I thank the Senator for once again raising this very important issue. He has certainly been leading the field in addressing this issue and his concern for Shannon Airport is second to none. In whatever form it takes, Brexit will have a significant impact on Ireland and requires planning by Government, business and citizens as well as at European Union level. Brexit will have negative consequences in all scenarios but we are determined to be as ready as possible.

On 8 May, Ireland and the UK signed an important memorandum of understanding on the common travel area, CTA, reaffirming the commitment of the UK and Irish Governments to maintaining the CTA in all circumstances. Irish citizens will, therefore, continue to be able to move freely to live, work and study in the UK while British citizens can do the same in Ireland. Similarly, the European Commission's regulation aimed at ensuring basic air connectivity in a no-deal scenario has been finalised and the UK has confirmed its intention to reciprocate the proposed measures. While this cannot mitigate the overall impact of a no-deal scenario or the assurances contained in the negotiated withdrawal agreement, the fears that aircraft might not be able to fly in the event of a no-deal Brexit are being addressed and the risks to air travel between Ireland and the UK and the UK and the rest of Europe have been significantly mitigated.

Government Departments, including mine, as well as key agencies, have been preparing for Brexit for three years now and notwithstanding any comfort we can take from commitments on the CTA and agreements on basic air connectivity, we continue to prepare through contingency planning and stakeholder engagement. Brexit is being managed on a whole-of-Government basis and my Department is represented on all relevant cross-departmental co-ordination structures. Additionally, an internal Brexit departmental committee meets monthly to oversee the Department's analyses and planning in the areas of aviation, maritime transport and tourism. Officials have regular, often daily, contact with stakeholders on Brexit planning.

Stakeholder engagement is important to the Government's domestic response to Brexit preparedness. As well as support provided by the Government, businesses and other affected sectors also need to respond and be prepared. Regardless of the impact of Brexit, there are some preparations that are purely good general business practice. For example, my officials and I have continually stressed the importance of all stakeholders, including Shannon Airport, taking necessary steps within their control to prepare for

Brexit. This includes diversification of markets. The Senator will be aware that establishing air transport connections is the result of commercial agreements between airlines and airports. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have no function in these commercial decisions. However, I support all endeavours of Shannon Airport to ensure its prosperity in line with Government policy and taking account of national and EU law.

The Senator referred to the fact that earlier this year, I met the chair and CEO of Shannon Group. During this meeting, Brexit was raised, particularly with regard to EU hub connectivity. I am aware that the company is endeavouring to secure alternative European hub connectivity post Brexit and is in discussions with several airline operators. The company has submitted a document, to which the Senator referred, to me on this matter. My officials are engaging with Shannon Group to explore what options are available to procure such air services, including supports from our tourism agency for co-operative marketing activity.The Government supports the development of air connectivity and the expansion of air services through funding from Tourism Ireland for co-operative marketing activity. Co-operative campaigns with partners facilitate increased marketing effort and help promote the destination. An increased Tourism Ireland budget for 2019 will continue to support both seasonal and regional growth and will be underscored by commitments to focus co-operative partnership activities on the January-April and October-December periods for Great Britain, North American and European markets. I continue to encourage all airports to avail of this funding to optimise air services, including Shannon Airport regarding alternative European hub connections.

Project Ireland 2040 supports investment to promote high-quality international connectivity between Ireland the rest of the world. This is vital in underpinning international competitiveness and to responding to challenges and opportunities arising from Brexit. In line with the 2015 national aviation policy for Ireland, the role of Shannon Airport as a key tourism and business gateway will continue to be Government supported. I welcome that Shannon Group is exploring ways of availing of funding under Project Ireland 2040, such as the urban regeneration and development fund and the rural regeneration and development fund. My Department is engaging with Shannon Group to ensure all opportunities are maximised for the benefit of it and the region.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. In respect of the submission made by Shannon Group to him and his officials on 21 March last, he indicated that his officials and the Shannon Group are exploring what options are available to procure air services to other hubs, including support from the tourism agency and co-operative marketing activity. Time is of the essence. Brexit is on the horizon. From the point of view of Brexit readiness and Project Ireland 2040, which aims to achieve regional growth to complement Dublin, when does the Minister expect a decision to be made on the various options for progressing major hub connectivity between Shannon Group and other European airports such Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris? The key issue is to secure major European hub connectivity so that we are Brexit-proof and we can drive passenger numbers into Ireland and alleviate pressure on Dublin Airport. This would allow more people to fly into Shannon Airport where significant capacity is available. The airport would be able to deal with well in excess of 2 million extra passengers. As with Dublin Airport, Shannon has US pre-clearance. The airport has a great deal to offer. Will the Minister give a timeline by which his Department's formal consideration of the various options will conclude in order that Shannon Group can proceed with speed to get European route hub connectivity in place?

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Dublin Rathdown, Independent)
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I am afraid I have learned the hard way that giving timelines is foolish in these circumstances. It is not good for the Senator and it would not be good for me to do so. We will try to expedite this process and conclude as soon as we possibly can. If I were to give the Senator a timeline for achieving what he wants, it would assume that we would be able to achieve it. We will support the objective he has set out, as will Tourism Ireland and other agencies. However, to give the Senator a date would be speculative and might raise false hopes that something will happen sooner. My Department and I realise the urgency of this matter. I will ask my officials to accelerate the talks in response to what the Senator has said and to continue to pursue the objective that he and my officials and I believe is important.

Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.