You might as well spin a crystal ball around on a table, look at it as intently as you can, and conjure up some figures of this kind, as to tell us that in 1959 somebody is able to say that in 1965, in the field of air traffic, we will make a surplus of £287,000. It may happen that that will work out but, frankly, I do not believe it will, nor do I believe that the human mind to-day is capable, in the field of air traffic, of making anything beyond the most fantastic guess as to what air traffic will be operating in 1965.
I would approach this problem entirely differently from whether or not these figures were realistic figures, figures on which we could rely. I think it is a matter on which we have got to take a calculated risk and I would be prepared to take that calculated risk for a number of reasons, without regard to these estimates, which I think are fantastic and for which, as I said, I would not give twopence. There are a lot of difficulties to be considered in connection with air transport and air traffic, and probably the most sober reflection which we could permit ourselves is to look, as I did recently, at a summary of the financial position of the S.A.S. Company, the Scandinavian air system, for last year. They carried 1,500,000 passengers and their income was approximately £38,000,000, yet at the end of the year there was no surplus.
Let us keep that in front of our minds and remember that we are not going to carry anything like 1,500,000 passengers and that our takings will be microscopic compared with the £38,000,000 taken by the S.A.S. Company. Let us remember that they had nothing to give away out of their £38,000,000 and their 1,500,000 passengers, and they have the advantage of long hauls on most of their flights and, for quite a period, they had a monopoly on some of their flights. Bearing all that in mind, is it not rather reckless to give an estimate in 1959 of what our earnings are likely to be in 1965?
What does anyone know what the pattern of transatlantic flight will be in the future? What does anyone know how long the new jet aircraft will hold in the skies? On the basis of past experience, it may be possible that these new jet aircraft should run a course of about ten years, because it probably will not pay to change them in the meantime. You do not know even how far that is a wise calculation because somebody may appear on the scene, with something entirely new in the field of aeronautics, and may put on the market something which again will revolutionise air transport. In the face of all this, any forecast of what the situation is likely to be six or ten years hence must be conjectural, even in the widest estimates.
The problem is further complicated by the consideration that many of the major European countries, very heavily capitalised, with a long flying tradition, have been complaining for some time that the costs of air operations, particularly with the winter time sag, is imposing a very heavy burden on them. They have been saying to one another that they are compelled to keep offices open here, there, and elsewhere throughout the world and that they have got to keep separate handling staffs and separate services at different airports. Recently, arising out of the Common Market development, consideration is being given to the possibility of establishing a merger of air services in Europe, under which these companies will probably operate in pool, and in that way they could regulate flights, regulate time tables, regulate the method of staffing and regulate services on the different routes, eliminating competition and, in that way, probably cheapen their costs and get better and more economically rewarding flight loads in the future.
If Aerlinte were confronted in the transatlantic field with that kind of development from Europe on the one hand, paralleled by perhaps something like it from America on the other hand, and that they were to try to exist as a separate operator, one could not tell what the finances of Aerlinte would be. It is possible to visualise that there will be a merger of European air companies. I think that is clearly coming. The companies themselves are talking about it in optimistic terms and, though the American pattern has not yet been revealed, I imagine that the establishment and operation of a European merger will probably encourage American companies to think likewise, so far as the operation of American services are concerned, in order to hold their place competitively in the skies. In the face of those possible mergers, among companies with enormous resources, I think it would be difficult to estimate what would be the financial position of Aerlinte if it were compelled to compete, as it may well be, with merged companies of such stature and prestige in the air world.
As I said at the outset, the main point is: are we prepared to take a calculated risk in the operation of transatlantic air services? The question which we must ask ourselves is: are we going to stay in the skies, as a nation, between Ireland and the United States of America, or are we going to get out of the skies? Quite clearly we cannot stay in the skies with the present type of aircraft. They would be superseded for long hauls by the new type of jet aircraft, and the type which Aerlinte has at present would, in the course of a couple of years, be regarded as providing second or third class travel. If we are going to stay in the skies we cannot stay there by using planes, which in the light of modern developments in aeronautics, would be regarded as second or third class planes. We can stay there only if we have first class planes.
I think that brings us inevitably up to the question of whether we are going to buy the latest and most modern planes for the purpose of staying in the skies between Ireland and the United States and thus providing the people of the U.S. with a method of direct transport to this country. It is quite conceivable, of course, that when these new jet aircraft come into existence, aircraft which will take people from America to Paris in six hours, the tendency will be to overfly Shannon unless there is some insistence by the passengers that they want to get off at Shannon. How much insistence there will be is another matter. Many Americans come to Europe or come east, but they do not necessarily spend all their time in Ireland. Many of them go to Europe and it might very well be that with high-pressure advertising in America for an air trip involving a stay in the air of five hours, many of them would fly direct to Europe. Certainly, they would be encouraged to do that unless we could provide an alternative service whereby they could fly into Shannon and unless we could manage by press advertising to induce them to fly to Shannon with a view to getting to Europe ultimately by our services which are flying to the Continent.
A decision as to whether we shall stay in the skies with modern aircraft involves a decision as to whether not merely will we do so for air transportation purposes but whether we will do so in order to maintain and possibly develop our existing tourist traffic with the United States. If a situation developed whereby the large companies in Europe and America decided—and we cannot influence them otherwise— that they would overfly Shannon and we had no aircraft in the air it might very well be that a situation would be created in which no person would come direct from the United States to Ireland unless that person first went to Britain or Europe and took in Ireland on the return voyage.
No matter what the cost is so long as it is tolerably within reason I do not think that we can contemplate with equanimity a situation of that kind. I think if that situation were likely to develop we would be in a position in which passengers to Europe might look down on Ireland when passing over but if there were no planes to Ireland from the United States I think we would be bound to lose heavily from the point of view of maintaining or developing our tourist traffic with the United States. Therefore, I think if we are to stay in the skies between here and the United States we must get the most modern aircraft. I think if we are to have regard to the possibility that Shannon might be overflown by these other companies and that we could not provide an air service at short notice to take up the passengers who would want to stop over on a direct flight from America, we must provide a service for them not when a crisis is upon us but we must have the service available all the time.
Thirdly, if there is to be an air merger either in Europe or in America, it may very well be that it will pay us to fit into that somewhere but if we have no aircraft in the skies or no service between Ireland and the United States it will be of very little avail to us to say: "We are interested in an air merger in Europe or America" when, in fact, we have no planes on the Atlantic route. Therefore, there ought to be planes—and decent planes —on the Atlantic route so as to give us an opportunity of considering whether, from a financial and tourist point of view, it would pay us to go into an air merger either in Europe or America so long as this air merger made use of Shannon as a stopping-place or means of depositing tourists here.
That is not an easy decision for any Department or air company to take but I think this is a case where you have to take a risk. If for the reasons I have mentioned an air service between this country and America is essential then I think you have got to take that risk. If I were the Minister I would not rely on these figures. In replying, I would underline the necessity for treating them with caution. I think what we can do is take a calculated risk and carry out the project that has been envisaged and hope that by the exercise of business acumen and ingenuity and the utilisation for what it is worth of our special connections on the basis of kinship in America we can maintain an air service between the two countries which will not impose too great a burden on our taxpayers.