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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002

Vol. 559 No. 5

Adjournment Debate. - Regional Airports.

There are five cities in this State, three of which have State-run airports, Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Galway, like Waterford, has a regional airport but it has a public service obligation route to Dublin with an anticipated €112 subvention for each return journey. The major difference between the airports in the cities of Galway and Waterford is this subvention, but the inequity does not stop there.

There are six regional airports in total, Waterford, Kerry, Galway, Knock, Sligo and Donegal. All except Waterford have a public service obligation route to Dublin. There is also a public service obligation route from Derry to Dublin. Passengers on a return trip on the Kerry-Dublin route are subvented by an anticipated €114. Passengers from Knock to Dublin are subvented by an anticipated €560 per return journey. The anticipated subventions on a return journey from Sligo and Donegal are €174 and €350, respectively. The Dublin-Derry return trip subvention is of the order of €236.

Access transport remains a major problem for Waterford. The southern section of the upgraded N9-N10, Kilcullen-Waterford road is causing major concern as regards when and if construction will commence. This has to be viewed in conjunction with Waterford losing its link with the North Wall rail freight hub in early January 2003, which will effectively close down the rail links from Waterford port. On the one hand, this will put considerable extra freight on a very inadequate road system while on the other it will greatly restrict the port of Waterford's ability to generate new business. The proposed new river crossing at Waterford is to be hard tolled, while heavy vehicles using the Dublin port tunnel will not be tolled.

Waterford is the only one of the five major cities not to have a university. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have refused to give the excellent Waterford Institute of Technology a stand-alone status similar to the Dublin Institute of Technology so that it can more rapidly achieve university status. Recent cutbacks further exacerbate this situation. Cork, Limerick and Galway all have both universities and institutes of technology. There are also serious concerns regarding the rollout of broadband for Waterford.

EuroCeltic Airways will be withdrawing its services from Waterford with effect from 26 January 2003. Yesterday, eight days before Christmas, protective notice was issued to the 22 staff at the South Eastern Regional Airport in Waterford. The helicopter search and rescue service operated at the airport on behalf of the Irish coastguard is now threatened because of the financial situation. The airport board is making every effort to keep the airport open but it is extremely hard to be optimistic. It received a marketing grant of €410,000 this year. The minimum running costs will be of the order of €800,000 not just to stay open but to provide the required level of manpower and services. Nicholas Fewer, the chairman of the airport company, pointed out that the five other regional airports received the vast bulk of the €29 million in subsidies paid out this year. He also stated that neither the South East Regional Airport nor EuroCeltic Airways can continue to provide essential services from Waterford while running up substantial losses. I regret that the Minister for Transport is not here for this debate.

It is the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

I welcome the fact that the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is here. The recent introduction of the penalty points system has been a success. I fully support it, but one of its consequences has been to slow down traffic, making the road journey time between Waterford and Dublin considerably longer. This gives the Minister an excellent opportunity to go back to the EU to seek sanction for a public service obligation air route between Waterford and Dublin. In the meantime it is vital to provide the funding to keep the airport open, to protect the 22 jobs and retain the Irish coastguard helicopter search and rescue service at the airport. EuroCeltic will achieve 77% of its target this year on its Waterford-Luton route. The route will have a total of 31,000 passengers by the end of the year while 41,000 passengers would allow it to break even. Waterford and the South Eastern Regional Airport are being discriminated against, both in terms of the other four cities and the other five regional airports. I demand that the Minister for Transport urgently intervenes to prevent a major disaster not just for Waterford but for the south east region.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Teachta as ucht na ceiste seo a ardú. Mar Aire a bhfuil cúram fhorbartha tuaithe air, tá áthas orm go bhfuil an deis seo agam an cheist a fhreagairt.

Waterford Airport, trading as South East Regional Airport, is a community airport operated by a private company which includes representatives from the local authorities in the south east on the board. The airport commenced operations in 1985. It was given an infrastructure development grant of €1.5 million in the late 1980s and a further €476,000 in 1998 for a runway overlay extension. Between 1993 and 2001, the airport also received over €1.2 million in Exchequer support for promotion and marketing.

Passenger traffic in 2001 was only 15,500 compared to a high of around 50,000 in 1990. A small UK carrier, EuroCeltic, commenced services between Waterford and Luton in 2001. EuroCeltic recently decided to terminate this service from 26 January 2003. The company has stated that the service needed to attract around 40,000 passengers per year to break even, but will only fill approximately 31,000 seats this year.

It is understood from the airport company that neither the local authorities in the south east nor private sector interests locally are prepared to invest any further funds in the airport. The Waterford Airport authorities have been making vigorous efforts to reduce the airport deficit going forward. However, bridging the gap remaining between revenue and costs, after account is taken of Exchequer support, has been proving very difficult and this problem, coupled with the pending loss of the airport's only scheduled air link to Luton, operated by EuroCeltic Airways, has prompted the Waterford board to issue protective notice this week to the 22 staff employed at the airport.

Several years ago the EU Commission objected to a PSO air link between Waterford and Dublin because it considered other transport modes to be adequate. Partly in recognition of the fact that the airport did not have a PSO service, the grant from the Department of Transport for marketing, promotion and security was substantially increased from €250,000 in 2001 to €410,000 in 2002 representing an increase of 64%.

Waterford Airport has a runway capable of handling mainly turboprop aircraft and general/corporate aircraft movements. Limited air services using turboprop aircraft of the kind available from Waterford are not attractive to modern day air travellers. The experience of Waterford with market-led air services to the UK has been irregular and not sustained, even during the recent years of record economic growth. Cork Airport, with its growing range of services, is only a two hour drive away on improving roads and is an increasingly formidable competitor. Airports are now facing increased costs in the area of security, safety and general compliance with higher standards. In this scenario, Waterford Airport faces very grave difficulties looking forward.

The financial outlook as provided recently by the airport company shows that the airport cannot be sustained by the levels of assistance which could be reasonably expected from the Exchequer. After the enhanced offer of Exchequer marketing support is taken into account, the continued operation of the airport rests on its ability to attract and retain a range of attractively priced air services in the light of the available catchment area and on the willingness of people in the airport catchment area to support such air services by using them.

The Minister for Transport and his officials remain in close contact with the airport authorities at Waterford and a further meeting will take place this Thursday, 19 December. It is hoped that the efforts of the airport board to put together a sustainable business plan will bear fruit despite the difficulties they face.