Aviation Regulation Bill, 2000 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

When I finished speaking on the Aviation Bill the other evening I had sought assurances from the Minister regarding the equity that would be used in terms of various airport charges. For instance, I was particularly concerned about the way in which the Department of Health and Children administers funds to disabled people, where overheads end up costing about 60% of the charge and the cross-subsidisation that has been going on in Aer Rianta. The Minister, in her regulations to the commissioner, will have to clear up this matter in order to overcome the difficulties.

I support the suggestion that has come from the employees of Shannon Airport who are looking for a general manager to represent the aviation commission in each of the airports who would report directly to the commissioner. This is most important because of the way in which the growth of Dublin Airport has overshadowed the other two airports – Cork and Shannon. For that reason, a certain amount of independence is required by the two airports to deal with the regulator/commissioner who will be responsible for these charges. Will the Minister consider this matter before going further with the Bill?

As far as the independence of airports is concerned, there are also problems with regard to their development. For instance, international companies have expressed an interest from time to time in setting up at Shannon Airport but decided against doing so because there is no cross runway allowing them to land 24 hours a day in all kinds of weather. Most aircraft today can land provided they are provided with the necessary infrastructure. I know the lighting system has been improved in Shannon Airport but it needs further upgrading. A cross runway is needed to give the airport international status for the future. The problem with this Bill is that if some kind of independence is not established by regulation, Dublin Airport will continue to suffer from growing pains, which is unfortunate.

There used to be a highly thought of service at Shannon Airport, namely, the in-flight catering. The equipment at Shannon Airport has aged and new investment is needed. There appears to be a hesitancy in Aer Rianta to reinvest in the airport but it must see that there is a market for a modern in-flight catering service, competitively supplied by Shannon Airport, which would attract more people. The airport has already shown its adaptability in that it has dealt with requests from different sects who require different kinds of foods. It was the first on the market with frozen food. It developed a full system for in-flight catering with hot food in particular and with modern technology it can go even further. I ask the Minister to encourage Aer Rianta to invest more fully in a new in-flight catering division in Shannon Airport. That would be an additional attraction for people to utilise Shannon Airport on an international stage and increase the amount of traffic at the terminal. I regret that these charges will be put in place without Shannon having the necessary infrastructural development required of an international airport.

The easy access to and departure from Shannon Airport and its user friendly status can be promoted to good effect in the future. I urge the Minister to examine my proposals.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Like my colleagues, I empathise with the Minister's statement that as we are an island nation we are greatly dependent on having proper access via our airports to the rest of the world, particularly in the growing and successful economy we currently enjoy. This Bill has been introduced as a result. We are also fortunate that our aviation sector has an excellent reputation. The Irish Aviation Authority has enjoyed a good reputation as a provider of a quality, safe and efficient service. We want this Bill to ensure that this continues to be the case.

Considerable debate on the responsibilities that come under this Bill, such as air traffic control charges, ground handling services etc., has taken place on our national airwaves over many months. That is nothing new because this situation has been flagged for some time. We were aware that with the abolition of duty free sales the manner in which charges are imposed in our airports would have to be seriously examined. I welcome that the Minister has grasped this important issue and has introduced this Bill with the primary purpose of establishing a new regulatory body that will be known as the Commission for Aviation Regulation.

That commission will have five areas of responsibility, the approval of airport and air traffic control charges, the approval of ground handling service providers at airports, something about which we have all heard a good deal of debate in recent weeks, the granting of operating licences to air carriers established in Ireland, the administration of the rules governing the allocation of take off and landing slots at airports and the licensing and bonding of travel agents and tour operators.

In fulfilling these new responsibilities the commission will exercise its functions under existing legislation but also in line with EU regulations. When the Minister examined this issue she was concerned about the potential for conflict that existed between the shareholder role and the regulator role, which she addresses specifically in the Bill by setting up an independent economic regulation of Irish airports under the new commission. I welcome that step.

Part III contains the major sections of the Bill. Section 31 outlines the scope of this regulation. There was confusion about this provision when it was discussed in the past day or two. It will apply to only airports with more than one million passengers annually. Deputies referred to airports throughout the length and breadth of the country, but many of them would not deal with that number of passengers annually.

Section 32 outlines the nature and scope of the regulator's role. The framework in which a determination is made in terms of the procedures, the duration and the application of the determination are laid out in this section, particularly obligations to consultation, which is a critical point. I compliment the Minister on highlighting it in that section. It is important that all those affected by the five functions of the new commission are engaged in the consultation process. That provision is catered for in this section.

There is also a provision that after a two year period the commission, at its own instigation or at the request of an interested party, can carry out a review of the original decision on its charges. I welcome that as do those involved in the airlines who will be interested in this Bill.

Section 33 outlines the regulatory objectives that will be addressed by the commission prior to making a determination on airport charges. The aim of that provision is to create a regulatory regime whereby the competing needs of all players are taken into account. That is a fair and critical section.

Section 39 provides for an enforcement procedure whereby the commission may apply to the High Court or for a High Court order to ensure compliance with its decisions and its requests.

I draw the attention of the House to sections 44 and 47 which are critical. Section 44 deals with company law requirements that any offence committed by a body corporate with the knowledge and consent of a director or officer of that body shall be regarded as having committed an offence. Section 47 deals with the freedom of information legislation.

I compliment the Minister on introducing this Bill. While we appreciate that Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport are very busy today, if we are to provide a proper and efficient service, essential infrastructure must be in place in our airports to ensure we can provide the level of service, similar to that which we enjoyed in the past, to meet the increasing demands they will face in the years ahead. This Bill is comprehensive and fair to all parties concerned to enable that to be the case. The Minister will be complimented in time for her foresight in introducing this legislation.

This Bill is a voluminous document. It does not provide much satisfaction to people who are not fortunate enough to have access to an air service. The Bill seems to be geared towards the creation of extra facilities in the three major national airports, Dublin, Cork and Shannon. I am amazed Knock Airport in the west does not make the grade of being considered a major national airport along with the three to which I referred, given that it caters for a large part of the country.

It is evident that the aviation section has played an important part in our economy, primarily by supporting growth and commerce in many vital areas of industry. Since the development of the channel tunnel which joins Great Britain to mainland Europe, we are the only island nation in Europe not joined to mainland Europe. It is of paramount importance that aviation is promoted to the fullest in Ireland. Industrial and commercial interests of all kinds should be given an opportunity to compete with their EU neighbours. It is time the playing field was levelled for our industrialists and entrepreneurs in line with their EU counterparts. Industrial and commercial interests would benefit from development and expansion of the aviation industry in Ireland.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.