Friday, 6 November 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
The first matter will be Senator Chambers and Murphy on the issue of support for Ireland West Airport Knock. Before they arise to talk on the issue, it would be remiss of me not to mention the great Monsignor Horan for making sure that the dream became a reality, and all of the people who were involved in putting the airport together and making sure it continues. Brian O'Dwyer, who was on the first pilgrimage flight from the United States of America, is now the international chairman. He landed in the first pilgrimage flight that arrived and maybe he will arrive in another aeroplane that will be coming, which might be Air Force One.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for outlining just how special is Ireland West Airport Knock, known to us locally in Mayo as Knock Airport. It first opened its doors in 1985 with just three chartered flights to Rome. Since then it has grown to become Ireland's fourth busiest airport after Cork, Shannon and Dublin airports. In 2019 more than 800,000 passengers passed through its doors. The airport directly employs 100 people and indirectly employs 3,000 people across the region due to its impact in the tourism and hospitality sectors. It was stated in 1985 that it could not be done and that an airport could never be a realistic option on a hill in the foggy and boggy grasslands of Mayo. Monsignor James Horan proved them wrong and in five years he built that airport, opened its doors and there it stands today going from strength to strength.It has not, however, been untouched by the pandemic and, like the aviation sector right across the country, has sustained massive losses this year. It is looking at losing approximately €4 million in 2020, a colossal loss the like of which the airport has never seen and which cannot be sustained. It has seen its passenger numbers drop by 90% and will close its doors for the second time on 14 November for four weeks. The airport will not survive if it does not receive the funding it needs from the Government, and that is why I raise this today. I am asking the Minister of State directly to provide to Ireland West Airport Knock the money it needs to cover its losses, just to break even and make sure it survives.
I cannot stress enough the importance of the airport not just to County Mayo but to the entire north-west region. It is our connection to the world and to the rest of this country. We need this airport. Its impact on jobs locally and right across the region cannot be overestimated. Will the Minister of State give a commitment that the Government will provide to Ireland West Airport Knock the money it needs to sustain itself and ensure it can survive post the pandemic?
I thank the Minister of State for being here to discuss what Senator Chambers has described as probably the most important issue for the west of Ireland. Connacht is often the Cinderella province. The most vital infrastructure in Connacht and the wider north west is Ireland West Airport. As Senator Chambers has outlined, it is vital we get as much Government support as we can for the airport. It is without question in crisis. I understand the Taoiseach is today meeting some of the staff from Knock Airport. I understand that representatives of the airport will be before the transport committee next week as well. We cannot state strongly enough how important this is. This was and is the people's airport. As Senator Chambers rightly said, Monsignor Horan drove this project. He was criticised for doing so, but there was enthusiasm in the west for the project, which, by the way, without being offensive to anybody, was criticised not alone by politicians in the east of the country but also many people in the media. It was described as a crazy project, but that point of view has been proven absolutely wrong.
Knock Airport is without question the most important piece of infrastructure in the west. We must maintain it. The local authorities in Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon have contributed €8 million towards the airport, so the CEOs and the local authority members in those counties are aware of its significance and importance. I hope we will get the proper support for the airport and I hope the Minister of State will bring back a strong message, as I have been giving to the Taoiseach, that it has to be supported, not alone for the jobs but for the future of the whole economy of the west.
I thank Senators Chambers and Murphy for providing an opportunity to speak about the Government's plans for the continuing support for Ireland West Airport Knock through the Covid crisis. I am happy to speak today on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton.
At this stage there can be no doubt about the impacts of Covid-19 on the aviation industry and the knock-on effects this drop in activity is having on domestic tourism and our regional economies, particularly in the west. It is of great concern to me that Ireland West Airport, like all our airports, has been fully exposed to the consequences of Covid.
The Government is also acutely aware that the situation in Ireland West Airport Knock has been further compounded by Ryanair's most recent decisions to cut its winter capacity at the airport and to cancel all services for a four-week period from the end of next week until mid-December. The airport is a strategic player in delivering high-quality international connectivity to the western region, so the devastating significance of this latest news on the airport is fully appreciated. The decision by Ryanair was a commercial one in light of poor forward bookings for the period in question and forms part of a wider move by the airline to cut its capacity on flights across Europe. This does not detract, however, from the disappointment being experienced by Ireland West Airport and other regional airports that have been impacted, namely, Cork, Kerry and Shannon airports.
As the situation unfolds, I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, fully appreciates the growing concerns about the future survival of many airports, particularly enterprises such as Ireland West Airport. I assure the Senators that the continued viability of these airports is very important to the Government. This is why, at the outset of this crisis, the Government took strong and immediate action to assist business and protect employment. A comprehensive suite of generalised supports for all companies has been put in place. These include wage subsidy schemes, grants, low-cost loans, a waiver of commercial rates and deferred tax. In this way, a significant level of Exchequer support has been made available to the aviation sector, including Ireland West Airport.
That aside, I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is fully aware that Ireland West Airport is still experiencing an unprecedented strain on its financial resources and has taken very difficult and responsible decisions to manage those resources since the Covid crisis began. The airport's efforts in this respect are acknowledged. Where lay-offs have arisen, the Government has ensured that employees were supported through the pandemic unemployment payment.
I have also been informed and wish to remind the Senators that Ireland West Airport is one of a number of airports receiving ongoing Exchequer support as part of the Government's regional airports programme. Last year, for example, I understand the airport received €9.4 million in funding from the State. The majority of that funding went towards its runway overlay project. This year, Ireland West Airport has received capital support of over €1 million and is also eligible to apply for operational supports from an available budget of €3.5 million.
In keeping with the Government's priorities for regional development, I have been advised that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is finalising a new regional airports programme for 2021-25. This will give funding certainty to Ireland West Airport over a five-year timeframe, helping the airport to remain viable as it transitions through the various phases of recovery from the Covid pandemic. I am also pleased to advise Senators in that context that the Government has confirmed its commitment to the continuation of the programme in budget 2021 by securing more than €21 million for airports such as Ireland West Airport.
I am advised by the Minister of State that all support mechanisms tor the aviation sector will remain under active consideration. In the context of the forthcoming national economic plan, the Government will consider further measures to support the industry to ensure that its core capability is preserved in order that it can recover quickly and be in a good position to support wider national economic recovery when circumstances allow. I am confident that the range of supports that are in place, coupled with those in development, will help Ireland West Airport to weather this crisis in the short to medium term.
The funding that has been available to date is welcome but not sufficient. My concern is that while budgets are being made available to regional airports, we are all looking to get money from the same pot and that the pot is not infinite. There needs to be a direct commitment for Ireland West Airport Knock to meet the losses it has suffered this year. Let us be very clear, the airport is closing its doors for the second time on foot of a Government decision basically to close down the aviation sector and to stop flights in and out of the country. The Government has advised people not to fly. That Government decision has impacted the airport through no fault of its own. It has carried out aggressive cost-saving exercises. It has reduced its staff, made 43 people redundant and reduced its costs across the board. There is a limit to what it can do. As has been said, this is the people's airport. The people of Mayo will not countenance anything happening to it because it was directly funded and built not just by the State but by the people of Mayo. We will make sure the airport survives but we need the Government to step up to the plate and do its job as well.
I welcome what the Minister of State has said but, as Senator Chambers rightly said, we need special supports. Not alone will the people of Mayo not stand for this, the people of Roscommon are adamant that this airport must survive and be supported by the Government, as are the people of Leitrim, Sligo and Galway. It should be remembered that Galway lost its airport. It is vital that we support totally Ireland West Airport Knock.
I acknowledge the Senators' comments. We have listened carefully to them. To give further assurance, the Government understands absolutely the intrinsic value of airports such as Ireland West Airport Knock to our economy, particularly in facilitating tourism and economic activity. We acknowledge in particular the difficulties facing our airports and the wider aviation industry at present. Again, that understanding is reflected in the level of supports being provided by the Government throughout budget 2021.This extensive suite of measures continues to be in place to help to mitigate the effects of the crisis. I know that there is a perception among the aviation industry that more needs to be done. I understand that companies - airports and airlines - have had to take very difficult commercial decisions to reduce costs. Such decisions, including temporary lay-offs and reduced working hours, have a devastating impact, particularly for close-knit enterprises and communities like Knock airport. I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Senators that more is being done by the Government. The House will be aware that the Government recently agreed to develop a framework around the traffic light system for air travel which was adopted at EU level on 13 October. Under this system, different rules will apply to passengers arriving from regions designated as green, orange or red, depending on the prevalence of the virus there. Some of these changes have already been implemented. More are scheduled to commence as soon as this Sunday in respect of people. This is just one example of the ongoing efforts by the Government which will hopefully be a catalyst to restarting our aviation industry. I thank the House.