Thursday, 30 September 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State and join in wishing her a happy birthday. I wish to raise the issue of Shannon Airport, which has been through a very turbulent time in regard to Aer Lingus and a number of routes being closed down. That said, there have been many announcements by Ryanair regarding many holiday destinations. Many businesses in the Shannon area, however, that is, in Limerick and in the mid-west region are dependent on routes out of Shannon Airport. While I welcome that there is now connectivity with Heathrow and the announcement on the American side of things that issues around border control will open up shortly and that routes will be back, perhaps in November, it is really important that the Government takes a thorough look at Shannon Airport. There has been major investment in regard to businesses expanding and businesses locating in the mid-west region and that is down to connectivity with our friends in the US and with Europe. As for Heathrow, we have had Brexit and we also need to look at connectivity in terms of a European hub. This is very important for businesses in the mid-west because prior to the pandemic, many businesses stated when they opened up or announced that they were locating in the mid-west, that it was down to education as well. We have three third level education institutions in the mid-west and they have helped, along with connectivity.
Many aviation companies have opened in Limerick and around the Shannon area. There is everything from aircraft leasing to the education and training board putting on a skills training course for aircraft maintenance. While Shannon Airport is separate, under the remit of Dublin Airport, the Government needs to give a boost to Shannon and the mid-west. I welcome the fact that Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, visited Shannon Airport recently and we saw an investment of over €6 million for a new baggage carrier. There will be many benefits arising from that and it will shorten the length of time people must wait. As we have a very long runway in Shannon, there are many things going for Shannon Airport but we need Government support and investment.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his wishes. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, sends her apologies, as she is not able to be here this morning. The Senator hit the nail on the head when she said Shannon Airport has come through "turbulent times". No two words could better sum up what we have come through in the past 18 months. Ireland is particularly dependent on air connectivity, both socially and economically. Aviation plays a crucial role in our economy as a driving force for tourism and business, including foreign direct investment. Civil aviation is emerging from by far the most challenging crisis it has ever faced, with many analysts predicting that it will take several years to return to 2019 levels of activity. Eurocontrol data indicates that overall aircraft movements within its pan-European network are currently holding at around 70% of 2019 levels.However, recovery in Ireland is slower, with aircraft movements at approximately 50% of 2019 levels. The Government has a comprehensive suite of measures in place to support businesses in addressing the impact of Covid-19, including those in the aviation sector. It is estimated that, through several available supports, Irish airlines and airports have received more than €300 million.
In addition to the Government's economy-wide support measures, in November 2020 an €80 million funding package for Irish aviation was announced. This package included the regional airports programme, which provided more than €21 million to our regional airports for 2021 and which supports the operation of our public service obligation air services. The Covid-19 regional State airports programme for 2021 provided €32 million to Cork Airport and Shannon Airport. Under EU state aid rules, the European Commission approved a €26 million Covid supplementary supports scheme to compensate airport operators for a portion of the damage caused by Covid-19 and the travel restrictions imposed by Ireland to limit its spread.
These supports notwithstanding, our airlines and other aviation stakeholders have had to make several difficult decisions to best ensure their long-term commercial viability. These decisions have focused on areas such as redundancies, laying off staff and the closure of operational bases, all in response to the significant reduction in their operations. Industry has also introduced shorter working schemes, which have reduced both the working hours and pay received by their staff. Most operators have also raised new funding, where possible, either through increased borrowings or the issue of new capital.
Non-essential international travel was permitted to resume from 19 July this year. The progress made with our national vaccination programme, the introduction of the EU digital Covid certificate and the adoption of an emergency brake mechanism to allow for an appropriate response to the potential emergence of any Covid-19 variants that present new or increased risk to public health means that international travel can operate safely. It is hoped that the recent announcements of the resumption of international travel between the US and Europe for vaccinated travellers in November and the discontinuation of our mandatory hotel quarantine system for those arriving from designated states will accelerate the restoration of extra-European air services and the recovery in the transatlantic market, which is of particular importance for Ireland.
I assure the Senator that Shannon Airport is a key element in our regional development plans. Shannon Group has availed of the economy-wide supports provided by Government as well as having received funding under our bespoke aviation support schemes. In total, the Government has allocated almost €33 million in support to Shannon Group since the crisis began and this will assist in positioning it for recovery. Prior to this, Shannon Airport, like all of our State airports, was self-funding.
Of the €26 million provided for under our EU-approved state aid scheme to compensate airport operators for a portion of the Covid-19 related damage to business between April and June 2020, our State airports were provided with €20 million in funding. Funding was allocated on apro ratabasis, with 2019 passenger figures used to determine the appropriate apportionment of funds. Shannon Airport received just under €1 million which will afford it greater flexibility in its ability to offer route incentives, in consultation with airlines.
The economic recovery plan 2021 launched with the goal of achieving rapid job creation and economic growth after the Covid-19 pandemic. This plan set out new measures and provided for the continuation of business supports. Importantly, this plan also recognised the potential need for additional supports for aviation. Officials in the Department of Transport are considering the possible need and options for further targeted supports for aviation with a view to aiding in the restoration of lost air connectivity and competitiveness.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. Yesterday, I welcomed in the House the appointment of Pádraig Ó Céidigh as the new chair of the board. I certainly believe that his experience of aviation and business will be a big asset. Shannon Airport has suffered a lot more than the other airports. With regard to Aer Lingus, it was the staff who suffered. Jobs were cut, including the jobs of many people with mortgages. Shannon Airport needs extra attention because it has been hit worst. The jobs lost there are not going to be replaced whereas the jobs of those working in all of the other airports were suspended on a temporary basis while the airports were closed and have since been reinstated. Shannon Airport needs extra attention if it is to thrive and be the driver in the mid-west region. As the Minister of State said, the airport is key to economic development. I would appreciate it if she could take that message back to the Minister.
The Government is committed to supporting our aviation sector. As the Senator will be well aware, the operation of air services is primarily a commercial decision for the air operators. In this regard, Ryanair's announcement of 18 routes to operate from Shannon this winter season is very welcome - I know the Senator has welcomed this already - as is the return to Shannon Airport of Aer Lingus operations on the London Heathrow route while Cork Airport is closed. The announced return of both American Airlines and United Airlines is a positive development, particularly as transatlantic connectivity is key to many commercial activities in the south-west region while also serving as a boon to our tourism and hospitality sector.
The Government and the Minister will continue to monitor and evaluate the performance of the aviation sector and the need for further targeted support schemes with a view to ensuring continued recovery and restoration.
I also welcome the appointment of the former Senator, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, to his new role. His experience will be very helpful and he will bring a focus to the regional airports.