Seanad debates

Friday, 26 February 2021

Covid-19 (Aviation): Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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It is my great pleasure to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to the Chamber to address the Seanad.

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I am grateful to be invited to the Seanad this afternoon. I am pleased to speak to the House on the impacts of Covid-19 on aviation. As the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has spoken about plans to introduce mandatory quarantine for international travellers, I will not address that matter but I am happy to speak further on it in my closing remarks if that is required.

The aviation sector has been massively impacted by the pandemic, with an almost total collapse in international air passenger traffic. In our airports, traffic in 2020 was down 90% for the period from March to December. Given this, and the continuing challenges and restrictions of Covid-19, it may take a number of years for the sector to return to 2019 levels. We will only see the beginning of recovery when there is the possibility of a sustainable return to international travel.

I would like to talk in more detail about the financial impact on aviation. As I mentioned earlier, passenger traffic is significantly reduced. Dublin Airport traffic levels are down 95%, and traffic levels in Shannon Airport and Cork Airport are down around 99%. Both Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, and Shannon Group have implemented significant cost-saving measures, including the introduction of temporary pay cuts, reduced working weeks and voluntary severance schemes.

Ryanair closed its aircraft base at Shannon Airport in October and announced in early November that it would cease all flights to Shannon Airport, given the collapse in forward bookings. Ryanair resumed a limited and disrupted schedule, due to Covid-19 restrictions, to three UK and European destinations on 17 December for the Christmas holiday period and these services ended on 10 January.

The 2020 annual results for Aer Lingus's parent company, International Airlines Group, IAG, were released this morning and they show a full-year operating loss for Aer Lingus of €563 million, compared with a profit of approximately €300 million in 2019. These results reflect the serious impact that Covid-19 has had on Aer Lingus and on the airline industry in general, and the outlook for 2021 is not positive. Aer Lingus is operating at just 15% capacity across its network and has also cancelled its services from Shannon Airport. There are no scheduled services operating at Shannon Airport until April at the earliest, when Ryanair has indicated it will reopen its base and commence a summer schedule of flights.

Our smaller airports have also been severely impacted. In the case of Ireland West Airport Knock, all flight operations were suspended from the end of March to the start of July 2020.The airport took the decision to close during that period and had to temporarily lay off most of its staff. With no scheduled flights, it was forced to close for a second time in 2020, from mid-November to mid-December. Currently, Ireland West has no scheduled services but is open for general aviation. The majority of the airport's staff are still on extended lay off. Other regional airports, such as Kerry and Donegal, were able to remain open with skeleton staff due to the operation of a Government funded public service obligation, PSO, service.

In response to the enormous impact of Covid-19, a number of financial supports have been put in place. The aviation sector has been able to avail of a range of Government supports for businesses. This includes the wage subsidy scheme, waiver of commercial rates, tax clawback, the Covid restriction support scheme, the credit guarantee scheme, and the Strategic Bank Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, working capital scheme. We estimate that over €200 million in operational supports have already been made available to Irish airports and airlines under these schemes. However, we recognise the need for targeted support for the aviation sector and, therefore, the Government has also agreed a revised €80 million funding package specifically for Irish aviation in 2021.

I will elaborate on how this package has been allocated. Some €21.3 million is allocated to the regional airports programme. A new programme for the period 2021-25 was published on 4 February. This funding will provide capital and operational supports to the airports of Donegal, Kerry and Ireland West Airport Knock, and will meet contracted costs of PSO air services from Donegal and Kerry to Dublin. Some €32.1 million is allocated to the Covid-19 regional State airports programme. My Department has developed this programme to provide capital and operational supports to Cork and Shannon airports in 2021. Airports have already submitted a range of capital proposals, including a significant runway overlay project at Cork. These proposals are currently being assessed by my Department.

Some €26 million is allocated to the Covid-19 supplementary support schemes. These schemes required state aid approval from the European Commission and I am pleased to confirm that the Commission announced its approval of the supplementary schemes on 24 February. Under these schemes, €20 million will be provided for compensation for State airports in light of Covid-19 impacts in 2020. This funding will provide the airports with flexibility to roll out route incentives-charge rebates, in consultation with airlines, with a view to supporting recovery and growth of connectivity. Up to €6 million will also be made available to regional airports - Knock, Kerry and Donegal - that provide connectivity under the EU temporary framework in recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on their business.

Taken together, the level of committed Government supports for Irish aviation to date is in the region of €280 million, which is a significant level of support by any measure. My Department will continue to consider proposals for additional targeted support in light of the deepening crisis in the sector, in particular, in the event of the extension of restrictions on international travel throughout the year. It stands to reason, however, that supports specifically designed to facilitate growth of air traffic can only be progressed at the appropriate time, taking account of the outlook for the easing of travel restrictions and improving wider epidemiological conditions.

In June 2020, the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport announced the formation of a task force for aviation recovery. The task force was asked to set out recommendations for consideration to assist the Irish aviation sector to recover from the Covid-19 crisis. The task force delivered its final report in July and recommendations broadly ranged from measures to improve the safety of air travel, to rebuilding regional and international connectivity, and to making financial support measures available to the sector. The majority of the recommendations have been implemented. Certain recommendations relating to the growth and incentivisation of air traffic can only be progressed when restrictions on international air travel are lifted.

The scale of the challenges created by Covid-19 are better understood now than when the task force was appointed and submitted its final report last year. I will be engaging with the National Civil Aviation Development Forum to continue our work in addressing the current challenges. The NCADF, which brings together senior aviation stakeholders, serves as the established high-level forum for consultation and engagement on key challenges facing the sector.In that context, I look forward to the opportunity in the near future to consult with this group and to consider how best the industry might emerge from the current crisis, following improvement in the epidemiological situation.

Given how difficult the past year has been for this sector, I wish to acknowledge how the aviation industry has responded to the challenges of Covid-19. Throughout the pandemic the industry has continued to implement the suite of measures set out in the air travel protocol to address the public health safety of passengers and staff. Air carriers continue to play their part in implementing Government Covid-19 measures and to promote Ireland’s public health information on websites which are available to passengers at booking and check-in. Under the polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test regulation, carriers will deny boarding to passengers without a negative PCR test result and will inform passengers of their obligations not to travel without proof of essential travel.

My Department will continue to engage with airports and airlines over the coming months. The pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the aviation sector. We are an island nation and are heavily reliant on international connectivity. I am fully committed to protect and support the industry and will continue to work with my Department and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to ensure that the sector is at the forefront of our recovery plans. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. In the next phase of the debate all Senators will have six minutes' speaking time. I call our first speaker, Senator Buttimer.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach and I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Her contribution underlines the difficulties that the aviation and airline sector feels and is experiencing at present. We were on the precipice of Covid-19 this time last year. Prior to that, Ireland was renowned as a hub for the aviation industry with 50% of leased aircraft connected to Ireland. Our economic considerations, allied to political and social considerations, were favourable. That is why this debate is critical because it is about people and jobs, be they in the hospitality, aviation or airline sectors. In her contribution, the Minister of State recognised the profound and gargantuan sacrifice made by those who work in this industry. Some 250,000 jobs have been lost in a compendium of both hospitality and the airlines. Aviation and associated businesses tell us that Covid-19 has hit the aviation industry more than any other sector. When we start back again to travel, we will be starting from zero. If we look at the passenger numbers and tourism figures into Ireland, they have, as the Minister of State has rightly said, fallen off the cliff. Our airports are central and critical to the recovery of our country. If we look at Cork Airport, for example, it had 2.6 million passengers in and out in 2019. Today it is a fraction of that figure.

We must look beyond 2022 and I understand the approach of the Government and of the aviation task force. I contend we need to plan by having a reconvening of that task force, with a timeline and action points that can be developed to ensure the rescue of the biggest indigenous employer in our country.

People must fly into our country and by and large they do. I ask that the Government meets representatives of the airports, airlines and travel agents to create and protect new jobs. This week, I was given a virtual briefing by Cork Airport and it was completely sobering. I acknowledge and pay tribute to the staff of all of the airports and airlines for the sacrifice that they have made and endured. We must invest in our airports, which is why I commend the Minister of State's speech on mentioning the Cork Airport significant runway overlay project. I hope that the Government will approve it and that it can begin quickly.

The travel agents of Ireland are a forgotten group of people. They are critical for us as a country, have been generally supportive of what the Government has been doing and have received some financial supports. There must be a link between Government support and advice and restrictions on travel.Travel agents want to see their sector being mentioned in a positive way similar to the hospitality sector - the pubs and restaurants. The Government should not forget our travel agents. They are the human interface for so many people. As we heard yesterday, it is very easy to register a .iedomain name and trade from outside the country. Our travel agents are a significant business. They turned over €1.4 billion in 2019. They are regulated by the Commission for Aviation Regulation. They are Irish owned and Irish based small and medium enterprises employing more than 3,500 people. In normal times the sector is profitable as consumers book with travel agents and they benefit from that enhanced consumer protection, which could be lost if many of them go. We need a further debate about the protections for consumers in the travel industry in the context of Covid-19. We need to protect Irish travel agents because if we do not, the market will move overseas, which is not good for us as a nation. The inbound market brings in approximately 11 million passengers every year, which accounts for 75% of our tourism product spend. All of us, in the context of Covid-19, should stop demonising our travel industry and instead support it to manage the risk with a balanced approach to how we can safely resume travel, including international travel, which we need to try to do.

The issue of Aer Lingus and the staff of airlines has been raised with us by the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA. The Minister of State knows the figures that have been invested by the British Government in the likes of Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Portugal and even in the loan to Ryanair. It is imperative that we do not let Aer Lingus fail. We have a collective duty to ensure it survives because as the Minister of State said in her contribution, connectivity for us as an island nation is critical.

I commend the Minister of State on her work. We must plan for the resumption of international travel, whether in quarter 4 of this year or next year, with all of us having been vaccinated. I hope that we, as a Government, can do that in the context of this country being an island nation. It will take years for the industry to come back. The Minister of State might consider the reintroduction of The Gathering and other tourism incentives to attract more travellers to Ireland. I thank her for her engagement.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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If everybody follows that type of timing we will get to hear from every Member, which would be great. Quite a number of speakers are offering so in the interests of colleagues I ask Members to do that.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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The Minister of State is welcome to the House. It is good to see a fellow county woman here. She will be aware that there are 143,000 people involved in the airline industry here. As my colleague, Senator Buttimer, said and as the Minister of State pointed out, the industry is now on its knees. Not unlike Senator Buttimer and, I am sure, others in the House, I have been contacted by everybody from suppliers, technicians, ground staff, airline pilots and travel agents with respect to the industry and where it is going. As we speak, more than 1,200 pilots are grounded with nowhere to go. The remainder of the pilots who are in the air are being paid between 25% and 30% of the normal salary they would expect. To say that they are in serious trouble would be an understatement.

We are now coming into the second summer with travel restrictions. Airline staff and their families are facing continued hardship well into 2022 if we are to look at the timeframe that has been set out by the Government. Every airline pilot who contacted me mentioned Aer Lingus. It is a known fact going back to the good old advertisement from Aer Lingus that when one saw the shamrock in an airport one knew one was home. We simply cannot allow that airline to suffer any more than it is suffering already. As Senator Buttimer said, we have to start working to save that airline. I was speaking to some people last night and the Leader, Senator Doherty, has been more than facilitating in working with members of the pilots' association. I compliment her on that. As the Minister of State knows, for pilots to remain flying, they must have their licence up to date, and because so many are grounded, keeping their licence up to date is going to be a challenge for the future. I ask the Department to consider a scheme whereby pilots who are currently not flying are given time in simulators in order to maintain their licences. Once the industry opens up again, we want these people to be able to fly safely. A figure was quoted to me yesterday that it could cost up to €30,000 for pilots to become re-licensed if they lose their licence as a result of not having flying hours. We have to find a way to ensure all of our pilots are ready to fly.

This does not take away from the fact that being a pilot in the airline industry is without doubt the worst job in Ireland with respect to terms and conditions of employment. There is no permanency, from what I can see, for the majority of pilots flying out of Ireland and, indeed, many Irish pilots are not flying into Ireland at all and, while licensed here in Ireland, they are in bogus self-employment. They are contracted on an individual basis, which is outrageous during a pandemic because it impacts everything, including their pandemic unemployment payment. In addition, pilots have no pensions. This bogus self-employment particularly hits female pilots, who have no maternity leave and no guarantee that once they have had a child, they will get back into the air again, because there are no guaranteed flying hours at the other side of maternity leave. At a time like this, these anomalies are shown up very quickly. It is vital that the Minister of State and the Department look at how people are employed within the airline industry.

In addition to pilots, cabin crew are the key people when it comes to safety on board an aircraft. Again, we have to find some way of bringing cabin crew back in to keep them trained and up to speed because we will, without doubt, start flying again in the very near future. I ask the Minister of State to consider a training scheme that will keep cabin crew up to speed.

The State will have to invest in this because, as Senator Buttimer said, the only way in and out of this country is through aircraft. We have to ensure that cabin crew and pilots, the moment they get the green light, are ready to get back in the air. I ask the Minister of State to consider that.

Everybody who speaks about the vaccine programme has a special reason why certain people should be vaccinated. Pilots are bringing everything into this country and they are bringing many of our exports out. Aidan Flynn of the Freight Transport Association Ireland has made a very strong case to me, which I will forward to the Minister of State, for the vaccination of those pilots who are entering and leaving the State.

As I promised the Leas-Chathaoirleach I would stick to time, I will leave it at that. I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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That is much appreciated. I call Senator Dooley.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. She does not need me to tell her the state of the aviation sector. It is absolutely on its knees, and she knows that through the work she does every day. It is not just the aviation sector, as all the ancillary businesses that have other customers but which were predominantly serving the aviation sector are also in a state of free fall. I have first-hand experience of this because there is an international airport located in the constituency I come from, namely, Shannon Airport. It is a microcosm of international aviation activity the world over at the moment. There are airlines, aviation companies and companies that provide care and maintenance of aircraft, and they too have lost contracts and are struggling to survive.

To look at the core of the aviation sector in the first instance, others have talked about the length of time it will take the sector to get back to normal or get back to what were 2019 levels.That is estimated at being close to 2024 and it is dependent on when we get some level of activity back in the aviation sector. Maybe that will be later this year; maybe it will be next year. The critical thing the State is trying to do, through the supports the Minister of State talked about and with which I think it will have to go further, is to ensure those companies survive. When I talk about companies surviving, I am talking about their ability to retain staff, pay them and give them some level of income to get them through the difficult period. I am in contact on a daily basis with workers and small business owners who provide services at the airport. While they expected last autumn that there would be some chance of opening up around now or midsummer, that unfortunately has evaporated and its likelihood, as we all recognise from a public health perspective, is limited.

The next phase is to try to shore up the balance sheets of these companies and to protect them. Let us look at the biggest operators in the first instance: the two main airlines that serve the State. We need that competitive tension to ensure there will be an appropriate marketplace on the other side of this. I have advocated for quite some time that the Government should engage with both Ryanair and Aer Lingus and look to see how they can assist these companies through this period. No company can sustain continued losses the way they have. I think it would be appropriate for the State to look to take a shareholding, not necessarily a passive shareholding but one that guarantees the protection of strategic connectivity during the recreation phase of the aviation sector. I am not talking about nationalising. It is not like that. It is playing a role similar to what we did with our pillar banks. We identified that the two main banks and Permanent TSB at the time required State investment to protect the banking system and the economy. I would argue that Aer Lingus and Ryanair are two pillar airlines that provide connectivity to this island nation and we should give serious consideration to taking a stake or an interest and a shareholding that could be dispensed with and sold on in due course when these companies recover.

There is enormous pressure and anxiety in the minds of people who have not been working for the last year. They are barely able to make ends meet. In many cases, they are living on very significantly reduced income. Some are out of work and on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. We are not seeing support from our pillar banks to assist them with continued moratoriums recognising that these people want to work and would be working in any other sector if they were trained in it. They are holding on and hoping this sector will recover. We need greater engagement from the banks.

Allied and directly connected to the aviation sector is our tourism and hospitality sector. Somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 people work in that sector, depending on the time of the year. We will have to do more for some of the operators in that sector who cannot take any more. They have reached an end point. I am talking about hotels, restaurants and that whole allied business. The State will have to provide greater supports or force the banks to show a greater level of forbearance in relation to outstanding loans.

We all talk about the planes and aircraft but other businesses are affected. There are people involved in leasing and car hire at the airports, ground-handling staff, people who load and unload baggage and people who work in refuelling. All of these people are effectively out of work and in a dire and desperate state. Even if there was some recovery in the short term, we would still be looking at a prolonged period where the State will have to stand behind and beside this sector. It is the right thing to do for the people and businesses that are there and it is the right thing to do for the economy. Some of the bigger airlines will choose not to serve Ireland for, perhaps, the next two or three years until it is financially viable for them. That is why it is important to protect what we see as the indigenous sector so we are in control to some extent and we protect to the greatest extent possible the companies that serve and operate within our State. I look forward to proposals the Minister of State may bring forward in due course.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. My job is very easy this evening. Senators are being extremely reasonable and collegial.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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It is very hard not to be.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the House. There is no doubt that all public representatives in the Oireachtas have been hearing from workers in the aviation industry. Their communications to us have all been about their deep concern about their industry and jobs and the knock-on effect on their families and loved ones.

The aviation sector has been one of the sectors hardest hit by Covid, and all supports for the industry need to be kept in place. There is no doubt that we need to protect air routes during the pandemic but it is vital that we protect the many thousands of jobs in the industry. Thousands of workers in the aviation sector, from pilots, cabin crew and airport staff to those involved in leasing, ground crew and cleaning staff, are utterly dependent on the State at this time. While supports have been given to workers through the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the employment wage subsidy scheme, and while some structural supports have been given to the aviation industry, the industry requires a survival package. There is no other way to describe this. The industry is, of course, an innocent victim of what has happened as a result of Covid-19. There are thousands of families looking for leadership and protections. They are not, in the opinion of many, seeing enough of an effort from the Government at this time to save the industry – an important industry that connects our island with the rest of the world and, by extension, our economy with every other economy. The industry can ensure that when our recovery begins, it will be much faster because of the connections it has built up over a long period. We all hope the recovery will be as soon as possible, but when it comes the industry may not be in a position to offer us many of the connections and routes that so many have worked so hard on.

The question so many of those families and homes so dependent on aviation are asking is whether the aeroplanes currently on the ground and in airport hangars in Dublin Airport, Ireland West Airport, Shannon Airport and Cork Airport will be there in a month or six months or whether they will all be sold off. Every aircraft sold in this way represents potential job losses for this country.

I want to ask the Minister of State another question relevant to this debate. I continue to receive many representations from constituents who continue to have difficulty acquiring refunds for flights that have not taken off or that have been cancelled owing to Government regulations and current health advice. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would let us know the current position on such refunds. With the forthcoming holiday abroad season likely to be adversely affected, it is important that those seeking refunds get answers to their queries as quickly as possible. The delays they have experienced are not good enough. A response by the Minister of State here today would be appreciated by many.

We all listened yesterday to the proceedings on the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021. There is no doubt it will have implications for the aviation industry. However, there is also no doubt the quicker we vaccinate our own population and keep out any further variants of the dreadful disease, the quicker the recovery time for the industry will be. The Labour Party proposed an amendment yesterday that would have resulted in mandatory hotel quarantine for people from all other states not including Northern Ireland. We tabled it again for the Seanad debate on Monday. Over recent months, we proposed a national aggressive suppression strategy. I, for one, would be very interested in hearing what the Minister of State responsible for transport thinks about why it is felt that mandatory hotel quarantine is currently essential for people from only 20 countries. As our party leader, Deputy Kelly, said yesterday in the Dáil, this virus is on tour. It does not know it can only board a plane from one of the 20 countries to come to Ireland. It could quite easily board a plane from a country that is not on the list because it travelled from its home country to that country and then booked its flight to Ireland.

Deputy Kelly asked why we are not doing everything we can for a given period to protect our people and why the equation is against the Irish people? On the one hand, the Government is limiting everybody's travel to a distance of 5 km; on the other, it is allowing people in from all over the world and, even though self-quarantine is a legal requirement, it is trusting them to quarantine at home for 14 days. If we do not introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for people from all countries outside this island, we are, in my opinion and that of many others, only delaying the reopening of the aviation industry. If we do not introduce mandatory hotel quarantine, we are not being serious about the thousands of jobs that each passing month threatens, nor are we trying to protect an industry that can and will play such an important part in the recovery in post-Covid Ireland.As the Labour Party's transport spokesperson, Deputy Duncan Smith, said in the Dáil on Wednesday:

The aviation sector is again being told that it will be at the end of the queue. There is no survival package for it. There is nothing to protect the workers' jobs or their terms and conditions. There is nothing to protect the companies to ensure that when we beat this virus, we will have a sector that will help to drive economic recovery.

What the industry needs is a survival package but also a Government that will introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from all other states for all non-essential travel. Yes, there will be short-term implications for the industry but if we continue to carry on as we have done with level 5 restrictions, followed by a reduced lockdown and then, possibly, a further lockdown then we more than likely will lose an industry that employs thousands and contributes so much to the economy of this island.

Finally, I thank the Minister of State and, indeed, the Minister for Transport for the recent announcement that the Athy distributor road project will go ahead. It is very important, as I discussed with the Minister for Transport, that this project goes ahead. I ask for a second bridge to be built in Newbridge, County Kildare, which, as the Minister of State is probably aware, part of the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF. I ask her to get behind this project too.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State. This is a very rough time for her to be landed with the aviation brief, if she will excuse the pun. I do not envy her at this time. No-one saw what was coming down the tracks or the runway as the case may be. We are where we are and I believe that both the Minister and Minister of State have done their utmost to deal with this unforeseen situation.

I could not call myself a Clare woman without mentioning Shannon Airport and how important it is to the whole region. It is the nucleus of all that is in the entire region spanning three counties. I could not miss this opportunity to raise the issue today with the Minister of State. It is vital that we support the workers and all of the people who have been affected. Regional rebalance is an issue that existed pre-Covid and we want it sorted when things re-open after Covid. We need to get more flights into Shannon Airport. We need transatlantic and European routes and Shannon Airport is as deserving an airport as Dublin for such flights. As Shannon Airport has a longer runway, transatlantic flights can land with lower carbon emissions, which is an issue the Government is also examining due to the climate emergency. If we are trying to do our best in every sector then emissions will have to be taken into account as well. I hope that the Minister of State, as a fellow west coast woman, will consider the importance of having regional rebalance as we look at reopening the airports once we get through this very tough time. I wish her the best of luck with the challenges that lie ahead in the coming months.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming in this afternoon. She will not be surprised that I want to discuss Shannon Airport. We have had a number of conversations on the topic and I know she is well aware of the impact this crisis is having across all of the sectors. I want to acknowledge, in fairness, that supports have been put in place to date although, clearly, we will need to go further.

The situation in Shannon Airport is more intense because of a deeply flawed structure that has operated for the past eight years whereby Shannon was deemed to be an independent airport. The good news, since the last conversation, is that we now have all-party agreement on that fact because the report produced by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks reads, "Recognising the very significant shock to the aviation sector, the Committee recommends the re-establishment of a State Airports Authority, encompassing Dublin, Shannon and Cork airports, to lead the recovery in a balanced way". That report has been signed up to by every political party in this Chamber, which I welcome. I ask the Minister of State to act on that.

The idea that an airport can recover on its own after such a pandemic does not make sense. The idea that we still pit Shannon Airport in competition against Cork Airport or Dublin Airport is absolutely ludicrous and we know it will end in failure. We know that it has been failing long before the Covid crisis. We only have to speak to the staff in Shannon who are now paid broadly about 30% less than their counterparts in Cork because of the ongoing financial crisis in Shannon. Clearly, to expect Shannon Airport to continue to compete against other regional airports is the equivalent of free market fundamentalism that I do not believe anyone across this Chamber could subscribe to. I hope that the Minister of State will reassure me that she will act on this recommendation.We know the whole industry is in crisis. However, we also know now is the time to take these fundamental actions to change the framework to make sure that we achieve the regional balance everyone wants. It will not be achieved by pitting Shannon as an independent airport against Dublin or Cork. We know who wins in that case. We also know that, when the airlines want to come back into Ireland, they will have no interest in talking to Shannon or Cork. They will only be interested in coming back into Dublin Airport. If a new national State authority specifies that an airline that wants to come into Dublin Airport will need to allocate X amount of flights to Shannon Airport and X amount of flights to Cork Airport, that will be how we achieve regional balance. It is in fact the only way to achieve regional balance.

Although I hope she will reassure me otherwise on this point, my fear is that the Minister of State will duck the issue. Running Shannon as an independent airport has not worked and it certainly will not work now. More importantly, every political party, through the transport committee, has signed up to that point and have asked the Minister of State to re-establish a State airport authority and reintegrate Shannon into it. I would welcome the Minister of State's response to that. Hopefully, we can work collectively to achieve the best outcome.

It is frustrating that I am the only representative who ever brings up the issue of US military troops in Shannon Airport, particularly in terms of the Covid issue. From information today, we know that, despite the US telling us that it would not breach our Covid regulations, as it did on 28 January, it did so again. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, confirmed to Deputy John Brady earlier today that the US breached regulations several times.

On 11 January, 59 US military personnel arrived at the airport but did not complete passenger locator forms. Again, on 23 January, 54 personnel who landed at Shannon did not present negative PCR tests or complete passenger location forms. That is in addition to the 48 US military personnel who stayed in Limerick overnight in hotels and went out for food.

This does not count the other two examples cited by Shannonwatch regarding 8 February and 28 January. On 28 January, 226 trips from an Omni Air International plane stayed overnight in a number of Limerick hotels. The events of 8 February are a really curious one. It involved a really small plane with seven people on board. According to the US, they were all crew, a completely ludicrous suggestion. One would not have seven crew on a plane that small.

There have been five breaches in the space of five weeks. It is completely unacceptable. US troops should not be in Shannon. I want to see our civilian airport grow. I do not want to see US military troops using the airport to wage wars of terror across the Middle East. We can park that for a second, however. The Covid issues are outrageous at this point. The US response of apologising and that it will not do it again has been blown out of the water five times in five weeks. What is the Minister of State going to do about it? Those troops are putting all of us at risk to Covid across the mid-west. The Covid infection figures in Limerick are not good right now and are much higher than those in other parts of the country. We cannot have this happening again. What steps will the Government take to make sure it does not happen again?

The debate on Monday regrettably will be curtailed to two and a half hours for all Stages. It puzzles me why we do not incorporate mandatory quarantine across a much wider range of countries. It also worries me. We know from listening to scientists that these variants are a particular threat to the progress we are making in getting the numbers down and, hopefully, to opening up society. It is not going to work if we are not serious about mandatory quarantine, however. One cannot be serious if one is picking just some countries. There is no rationale to how some countries are not excluded, including some of the most prevalent countries in terms of Covid. I would welcome the Minister of State's comments on that.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for being here to engage on this important topic.

While level 5 restrictions have caused all sorts of issues and challenges for our economy, it has been particularly difficult in the aviation sector and for those employed in it. Many years ago, a job with an airline was always thought to be the best one could get. My aunt was one of the first Aer Lingus air hostesses. As a child growing up, it was the most glamorous job anyone could have. There was always excitement when one knew somebody who was going to be a pilot.When we look at where we are now, it certainly is a very different type of career. We know that the number of people passing through our airports in Ireland fell, understandably, by more than 80% in 2020. Dublin Airport had 23.5 million fewer passengers in the 11 months to the end of November 2020 than during the same period in 2019.

We rely heavily on air travel in Ireland. I was surprised to learn that the industry is responsible for as many as 140,000 direct jobs. That is very significant. The national secretary of Fórsa, Ashley Connolly, told the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks recently that thousands of aviation jobs remain at risk unless immediate supports are given to the sector. I am aware that she referred to an aviation income support scheme in Germany, which enables employers to reduce hours rather than laying off staff, with government income support being provided for the time that employees cannot work. It seems to make sense. Such support has also been called for by the SIPTU aviation sector organiser, Neil McGowan.

According to some media reports, it is estimated that even considering the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, Aer Lingus alone has been losing approximately €1 million a day since April 2020. That is a very significant loss for one of our airlines. We are all aware that Irish airlines rely on summer bookings to make enough money to tide them over the winter season, which is loss-making. Obviously, there will be no air travel this summer again, so it is most urgent that we support airlines that are facing dwindling cash reserves. According to the president of IALPA, Captain Evan Cullen, the €80 million support package for the aviation sector, which was announced in November 2020, was welcome but was essentially a grant for Ireland's airports, the majority of which are owned by the State. The funds left over for the airlines may, at best, have covered a few days' worth of losses. Therefore, we must really look at the airlines as being separate to the airports.

When Captain Cullen spoke, he pointed to the role played by airlines in supplying economic lifeblood to the country by bringing foreign direct investment and an estimated €10 billion into our economy annually. Every aircraft that leaves Ireland represents lost jobs and lost GDP. It is an economic fact that if our airlines are allowed to go out of business, the consequences for the Irish economy will be devastating, taking into account the amount of exports that we have. Looking around the world, it is clear that most governments have recognised such dangers, and have accepted that if they are to intervene to prevent airline operations for the sake of virus suppression, they must ensure those airlines do not go out of business as a result.

The window remaining for decisive action is closing fast. Airlines plan and budget for their vitally important summer schedules at this time of the year, and they will soon have to make hard decisions - indeed, many of them already have - based on the expected market conditions. A number of people working in the airline industry have contacted me. I have no doubt that they have also contacted all of my colleagues. For example, a letter that I received from an Aer Lingus pilot outlined how his own life had been affected by the events of the last year. He wrote that his pay and working hours were reduced by 50% from 1 April 2020. During that time, his pay was subsidised by the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and subsequently, by the EWSS after 1 September 2020. He stated that has not gone above the 50% threshold since, and will not do so for the foreseeable future. The pilot also outlined the very difficult times that he has been through. He mentioned that he and his colleagues work on a variable roster with a fixed pattern, but on different days and hours each week, which is obviously very difficult.

Therefore, much clarification is needed. We must look at the extra supports that can be put in place. I know that next week we will have an opportunity to debate the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021.It provides for the introduction of mandatory quarantine at designated facilities for all passengers arriving from countries where there are variants of the Covid virus that represent a particularly high risk. This is very important, as are the enforcement measures in respect of regulations which prohibit non-essential travel abroad. People travelling abroad without an essential purpose can be subject to fines and prosecution. The enforcement of this is welcome and necessary when one sees people taking these risks on an ongoing basis.

I thank the Minister of State for her time and I look forward to having the opportunity to comment on the travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine next week.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Senator Conway.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today to discuss aviation. To state the obvious, Ireland, as an island nation, is heavily reliant on quality connections internationally. The connectivity pre-Covid was second to none, but it took years to build and establish it. While we kept our borders open to maintain critical supply chains over the last 12 months, we have also allowed for essential travel. That is the right thing to do but, if we are not careful and do not take immediate action, I do not believe we will have an aviation sector left standing to help Ireland recover when the sector will be needed most.

I wish to refer specifically to our airlines. The parent company of Aer Lingus this morning announced losses of €6 billion. Aer Lingus is one of our largest employers, with over 6,000 direct employees. There are tens of thousands indirectly employed. It has a fleet of 60 aeroplanes servicing 93 international destinations. That took years to build up. Ryanair is probably the envy of the world. The company has made Ireland one of the most competitive travel markets, ensuring that our consumers get the best value. It has a fleet of 271 aeroplanes. While the Government loaned money and the Minister of State referred to the €280 million which went to the airport authorities and the airlines through the SBCI, none of it comes close enough to ensure the survival of this industry.

Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are on record as saying that Aer Lingus will not be allowed to fail. It is time for the Government to make a direct intervention, as many other EU governments have done to ensure the sustainability of their airlines. Germany gave Lufthansa €10 billion, Air France got €7 billion, KLM got €3.5 billion and Spain provided €1 billion. Alitalia was nationalised. All of this was done to secure the jobs of employees, to exclude redundancies and to ensure the companies remained viable, so they literally can take off when the skies are reopened. It is time for Ireland to show loyalty to the shamrock because, God knows, the loss adjusters in International Airlines Group, IAG, will not give much thought to it.

We know that travel brings responsibility. The reason we have employed antigen testing for the more than 4,000 hauliers who are leaving and coming into Ireland each day is to ensure we keep that area of travel safe and continuous. At the same time, we are allowing other travellers to be demonised and even ridiculed, to the point of farce to be honest. It is on our national broadcaster. It is just not good enough. We currently have inbound PCR testing and quarantining. We must introduce antigen testing on landing to ensure that these essential travellers are safe and that we can build confidence in this sector again. Otherwise, I fear the demonising of the travel industry will have the same impact as when we demonised the building industry ten years ago, and we can see the ramifications of that both on building and employment in that sector. We should not make the same mistakes with flying and travel.

The time for the Government to invest is now. The industry is begging us. I do not believe that is how we should be doing our business. It is time for State intervention now.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. She has a difficult and challenging job, as have many in the Government. The aviation industry is critical given the fact that this is an island nation. We are behind the curve of other European countries in terms of putting cash into the airline industry. Many other areas of aviation have been affected aside from just the direct airline industry. Those are the associated companies.

Aviation and Shannon Airport have been extremely good for the mid-west over the last 50 years.The boom was saw in the 1960s, the 1970s and even the 1980s in the mid-west was largely due to Shannon Airport and the associated companies that located in Shannon and employed people there, simply because of its proximity to an international airport. Among these we have seen world leading aviation companies, particularly in the area of aviation leasing. We are number one in the world as a gold standard aviation leasing industry. Thousands of people work not just in the mid-west but in companies that developed in the mid-west and have spread throughout the country, including Dublin. These companies lease aircraft and do deals the length and breadth of the world. These companies are now finding it extremely difficult. Unfortunately, because of the world crash in aviation they are in a perilous situation. Many of the employees are very concerned about their jobs. We need a master plan not just for the airline industry but for aviation in general. There is absolutely no reason for Ireland not just to maintain but to develop as a leader in aviation associated companies and industries, not only in leasing but in pilot training and aircraft engineering. I want to see a blueprint and plan for the aviation industry to get it through the pandemic and then grow it into what it has been and what it potentially can be.

The notion of one airport in the country competing against another has to go. I support the proposals of the Oireachtas transport committee that we establish a single airport authority. I was always sceptical about the proposal to break up the airports, as happened when Shannon Airport was made independent of Dublin and Cork. The industry and business sectors in the region supported it at the time. It probably needed to be tried but we need to bring Shannon Airport into one entity with Dublin Airport and Cork Airport. That entity should be properly funded so all three airports can prosper.

Photo of Micheál CarrigyMicheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. We have seen the severe impact that Covid has had on our hospitality sector, on which more than 200,000 jobs are dependent. More than 75% of the spend comes from the 11 million tourists who visit our country. I support the comments that we need to introduce antigen testing at our airports to start reopening our tourism sector for the coming summer. We do not want to see a situation where it is introduced in Northern Ireland and then it has tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people visiting while our industry is closed.

Recently, I met the Irish Travel Agents Association, ITAA. We need to protect our travel agents and support jobs in Ireland. I do not mean agents registered here and based abroad. I would like an update on the refunds from Ryanair, which initially refused to deal with members of the ITAA. This was spoken about at a meeting of the Oireachtas joint committee. I would like to know where we stand with regard to Ryanair and refunds.

Yesterday, I met the Irish Air Line Pilots Association. I was struck by one comment in particular, which was that the aviation industry could mirror the construction industry after the crash. We need to support it and we have a collective duty to do so. I support the comments made by Senator Doherty.

With regard to applications for driver licences, I know it is the Road Safety Authority that deals with this but there are issues with regard to bus companies seeking licences for the drivers they need to allow for 50% capacity on bus routes. They are struggling to get drivers. They have people willing to apply for licences but they cannot do the test. I ask that these circumstances are classified as essential as they are needed to fulfil the 50% obligation.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. This week I met representatives of the ITAA.They are very much involved with selling aviation sector products in the Irish market not just with holidays and leisure travel but also with regard to the business market and the essential travellers we heard about earlier. They have had an incredibly difficult period over the past year, as everybody understands, but in 2021 and post-Brexit, the ITAA members - the Irish travel agents based in Ireland, employing Irish people and regulated by Irish and European law - are competing with British travel agents who are members of ABTA, the corresponding organisation in the United Kingdom. There is no difficulty with that.

The difficulty arises insofar as many ABTA travel agents working here in Ireland are trading under EU domain names. Although they are regulated by British law and no longer subject to important European consumer legislation like the package holidays directive, they trade here under what is essentially an Irish moniker. It is not clear to me, and I am not sure it is clear to many consumers, that those travel agents are not as well bonded as the ITAA travel agents and they are not regulated by European directives. As we hope to return some time late this year to more normalised aviation and travel conditions, we should look at the possibility of mounting a public information campaign to ensure Irish consumers know when they are booking a travel agent whether it is an Irish travel agent bonded by ITAA, which has extremely high protection for consumers and is subject to European legislation with the package holidays directive. Again, it provides a fine layer of protection for consumers in this jurisdiction. Consumers should know if they are dealing with that kind of travel agent or one outside the European Union, albeit with an Irish Internet address or an office in Dublin. Who is regulating them? We must mount a public information campaign to ensure consumers know what they are getting when they buy a package. That is a bit away from us now. I wish to be associated with the comments of my colleagues, particularly with respect to the airline industry as a whole and the difficulties it faces.

In the time I have left I will raise a matter that is also pertinent to the Minister of State's portfolio. Driver licences have been mentioned and I have been contacted by a young man in Goatstown who has not yet sat his driving test and clearly cannot do so. More important, he has not finished the driving lessons he is required to take before being entitled to sit his driving test. His father works and his mother is unable to drive because of disability but he is an essential worker. He must get the bus to work and he has told me he is very uncomfortable getting the bus in current circumstances. Is there anything we can do for people like him or in that type of position? We can use taxis and taxi drivers have put in place screens for protection, etc. Could that also be done for driving instructors? If that is not possible, I presume there are people in the house who could teach this man to drive, so could we forgo the requirement for new drivers to go through lessons? If people pass the driving test, they must have achieved a certain level of skill.

I have always supported the regime that requires a certain number of driving lessons as it is a good idea. It is progress. However, in the current environment we have an essential worker who is uncomfortable taking public transport and who does not have other options but is ready to sit his test. Could we do something to facilitate him or others in the same position?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have a few minutes to say a few words on this important topic. I welcome the Minister of State and wish her the very best of luck with her portfolio.

In the previous debate we spoke about airports and travel. I congratulate the staff of Knock international airport, Ireland West Airport Knock, including the chairman, Mr. Arthur French, the former chairman, Mr. Joe Kennedy, and the manager, Mr. Joe Gilmore, on the great work they are doing. The funding given to the airport over the past number of months is very welcome and very much appreciated by those people.

Suffice it to say that airports are no good without airlines and we need to look seriously at the airline industry to see what is happening. We have met pilots and other representatives in the airline industry over the past number of days and it is horrifying to see this entire industry could fragment in front of our eyes. There is a necessity to keep airlines moving, not just to keep routes open but for pilots as well, as they need to keep their licences current.One cannot do that with airlines if they are on the ground.

Senator Doherty raised a very important point with regard to people travelling in and out of the State, especially in the context of EU citizens and free movement of people. There is a PCR test that people must take before they fly into a country, which is very important, and it is being adhered to. When people land in Ireland, however, antigen testing should be used more frequently, or all of the time, at airports. This was pointed out to us by pilots yesterday. If a passenger comes in with a negative PCR test and also does an antigen test before he or she leaves the airport, it would give great security to the citizens who travel and to the friends to whom they travel. This is not being used. I cannot understand this. The people who are involved in the airline industry cannot understand this. Health staff use antigen testing and yet it is not allowed to be used on the people coming in, who might bring in any number of the variants of the pandemic disease with them. It is very short-sighted and I blame NPHET for this. NPHET seems to be running the show at the moment. People are afraid to make any decisions other than what NPHET says, because of what happened prior to Christmas. The Minister of State must look at the area of antigen testing and the free movement of people. If we do not keep these routes open we will be at a huge disadvantage as an island nation going forward.

The aviation industry in Ireland is worth millions of euro. It is not just about our connectivity around the world and our tourism trade. It is also about many other aspects such as aircraft maintenance and the dismantling of aircraft, which is a new industry. Aircraft leasing is a huge industry in Ireland. There are more than 50 aircraft leasing companies based in Ireland, with 14 of the top 15 leasing companies in the world based in and working out of Ireland. More than 60% of all leased aircraft worldwide are managed by Irish leasing companies. Aviation is a relatively young industry, being only 100 years old or so. Ireland has made great strides in this area and we must keep it going. It is a huge industry.

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I thank all the Senators who made a contribution here today on this critical issue. I really appreciate the Senators' comments. I have heard their concerns loud and clear.

On mandatory quarantine, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, outlined earlier today that the Government has introduced a Bill to provide for mandatory quarantine in hotels for travellers arriving in Ireland from certain designated states. All travellers arriving into Ireland who have been in the designated countries within the previous 14 days will be required to quarantine. This requirement will include those who enter Ireland via Northern Ireland. This measure is a necessary part of protecting our public health against the importation of new variants of Covid. It will clearly have an impact on further suppressing international travel to Ireland and will, therefore, have a negative impact on an already struggling sector. It will be challenging to balance requirements such as these, which are needed now to protect public health, with supporting our critical connectivity with the world. I am determined that our connectivity must be protected as much as possible, even when passenger numbers are currently low. We must take steps to be ready to build it back strongly when the time is right. I reassure Senators that we will engage with our aviation stakeholders on achieving this. I will be meeting with the National Civil Aviation Development Forum next week as part of that engagement. My Department will also continue to work with our colleagues across Europe. We will continue to provide support to the aviation sector and maintain a strong base from which we can recover when public health conditions allow. I look forward to our citizens being able to travel more freely in the future and to welcoming international tourists to our country once again. We need to do our best to ensure that when the time is right our aviation industry will be ready to recover.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. I thank colleagues for their co-operation in allowing me to get everyone in, and in making this a very worthwhile debate on a grave, national crisis.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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On Monday, 1 March, at 10.30 a.m. in the Dáil Chamber.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 1 March 2021.