I welcome the Bill. Aer Lingus continues to thrive. No other State company has responded so well to competition and this has benefited the company's employees and customers alike.
When we consider that less than 20 years ago the short flight to London cost hundreds of pounds we can see how far we have come in the area of aviation. The arrival of Ryanair in the 1980s forced Aer Lingus to confront a new reality. The airline has experienced many crises and much turbulence in the intervening years and it has not only survived but actively thrived. The company's turnaround since the terrible atrocities of September 2001 has been remarkable when we consider what happened to other international airlines in the immediate aftermath of those appalling events. Aer Lingus's network has doubled in two years, with 28 new routes since September 2001 while many national airlines, such as Swissair, Sabena and British Airways, have either gone out of business or reduced their passenger numbers.
Aer Lingus has served Cork Airport well in the 42 years since the airport opened. I acknowledge that service and I thank Aer Lingus for its support of Cork Airport. I accept that Aer Lingus, like all airlines, must compete in an aggressive and changing aviation business, but recent developments in Cork give cause for concern. The dropping of the Cork to Dublin route last month, after 42 years, leaves a great void. No longer can the public travel by our national airline between the two cities. The route is left to Aer Arann, whose fare from Cork to Dublin is €138 return. This is far in excess of what it should be. Aer Arann can offer fares of €49 to Edinburgh, which is twice or three times the distance.
Is Aer Lingus abandoning us in Cork? I hope not, although the signs are not good. I would like to be assured by Aer Lingus that the company is committed to Cork. I understand that next summer Aer Lingus will reduce its London service from five flights per day to four services per day, as per the company's current Internet timetable. This is not a good sign for Cork. Cork Airport is booming, with passenger traffic expected to grow by 15% this year, or 300,000 more passengers than last year, to 1.7 million passengers. Will Aer Lingus, Cork Airport's largest customer, continue to be part of that growth? I hope so. Will other airlines have to take its place?
We saw huge growth in Cork Airport this year with the arrival of Czech Airlines which flies from Cork to Prague. The local airline, Jet Magic, has opened 11 new routes to the United Kingdom and Europe and in a short space of time has carved out a nice niche for itself. The airline is targeting people who want a little extra friendliness, courtesy and helpfulness from staff. Jet Magic flies into London City Airport, a small airport in the east end of London. I have not tried the route yet but I know of numerous people who have. Passengers not only receive in-flight hospitality but when they arrive in London they find their luggage waiting for them in the terminal and they do not have to queue up and wait for it. I do not know how long this will last as the airport gets busier but it is nice to have a friendly airline taking such an interest in its passengers. I have recommended Jet Magic to many people although I have no vested interest in seeing the company succeed.
Aer Lingus recently announced three new European destinations, Alicante, Milan and Barcelona, the most successful of the three new routes launched by Jet Magic earlier this year. I question Aer Lingus's motive in this? Is it trying to put a new airline, which is Irish-based and has a number of Cork directors, out of business? Aer Lingus has served us well in the past but I hope it will make it easier for people in Cork to do business in the future and not take predatory action against small airlines based in Cork. Last week, Cork International Airport passed the 2 million passenger mark. The airport has enjoyed phenomenal growth this year and will shortly become the second largest airport in Ireland, in terms of passengers going through the terminal. Transatlantic services will shortly be arriving in Cork International Airport. I commend the management of the airport on its success. I particularly commend the airport director, Mr. Joe O'Connor, and his staff on their total commitment to serving the south-west region and the public of that region. It is a small but hugely successful and personal airport.
Aer Rianta has commenced the building of the new €70 million terminal to cater for growth, and a further €70 million will be invested in a new road structure, car park, fire station and air traffic control tower to facilitate the growth of Cork Airport serving the tourism needs of the south-west. Today, Cork is one of the fastest growing regional airports in Europe and I hope Aer Lingus will continue to be a strong component of any future growth at the airport.
I commend the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, for coming to Cork to announce that the terminal would go ahead despite the huffs and puffs we heard prior to the announcement. I thank the Minister for coming to Cork, touring the airport and telling the management and staff how things are and how they are going to be. It was a pleasure for me to see him and the Taoiseach turning the sod for the new development some months ago.
I would like to see Ryanair doing more for the regions. Mr. Michael O'Leary has been huffing and puffing and trying to blow the house down. He thinks he is running the country and that he can get what he wants when he cries like a child and puts full-page advertisements in the newspapers criticising the Taoiseach and Ministers. He thinks they will click their heels when he snaps his fingers. That is not the case. Mr. O'Leary is not running the country. My advice to him is to belt up and care for his customers. He should respect his customers. Ryanair is not the only low fares airline in the country. Aer Lingus has responded very well and has introduced a number of new routes with low fares. An Aer Lingus flight to Malaga, booked last week, costs €69 each way, plus taxes. The same flight would have cost between €300 and €400 a couple of months ago. Aer Lingus is rising to the low fares challenge.
Ryanair's days as the low fare airline are numbered. People will not put up with the arrogance of the airline. Mr. O'Leary's policy is not to cater for those who are late for or miss their flight, not to allow those who forget their passports or other identification to board their flight, and to charge more where baggage weighs more than 15 kgs. The airline charges the customer an arm and a leg in extra charges. Ryanair is a low fares airline if a customer abides by Mr. O'Leary's rules, books his or her ticket three to four weeks or months in advance and arrives at the airport on time.
I am aware of the case of a 79 year old man who travelled from Stanstead Airport recently. He and 40 other passengers were delayed by road works. Were Mr. O'Leary and his airline concerned? No. These people were charged for a second ticket because they had missed their flight.
Mr. O'Leary appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and I saw nothing but arrogance from him. He stated to the committee that it was none of his business and he did not care how people travelled to the airport. He used different words and was very disrespectful to the committee when he suggested that passengers could travel to the airport on their backsides if they wished because it was not his concern.
As my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, observed, Mr. O'Leary would be better off providing wheelchairs for his customers and ensure they arrive at the departure gate on time instead of block booking full page advertisements aimed at the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Brennan, other Ministers and the former Minister, Senator O'Rourke. He would be better employed concentrating and improving his services for the fee-paying passenger. Aer Lingus offers low fares and, therefore, I believe Mr. O'Leary's days are numbered and he will change his attitude. His spoilt boy attitude will get him nowhere in future.
My record on Cork Airport is well known. I have fought tooth and nail for its expansion. Investment in Cork's local airport was always minimal in contrast with the massive sums allocated at all times to Dublin Airport. The protected status and the subsidisation of Shannon Airport ensured its viability. Cork Airport was always the poor relation in the eyes of Aer Rianta. I actively supported workers at the airport when their jobs were threatened or they needed support on specific issues.
At one time there was a demand from certain business interests that Cork Airport be privatised. I supported the stand made against this proposal in 2001 by Cork Airport Against Break-up. The CAAB demanded significant Government intervention as an alternative to such a move. It stated that this investment was crucial to the survival of this important local facility. The CAAB believed that the airport's best interests would be served by remaining under the wing of Aer Rianta. That was the correct stance in the climate that prevailed, but times have changed.
I welcome the Government's decision to establish a fully independent and autonomous airport authority for Cork, Dublin and Shannon. This will allow the three airports the freedom to compete fairly on a level playing field.
Cork Airport is about to embark on an exciting new era which will be of benefit to Cork and will bring a new dynamism and significant growth in business and jobs. The Government has invested almost €200 million to clear the airport's outstanding debts and to cover the current losses associated with the works for its upgrading. This will enable the airport to make a fresh start free of all debt.
The new €140 million terminal extension is under construction. The new infrastructure will allow Cork Airport to cater for a rapid expansion in business. Under strong, new leadership, free from restrictive Dublin-based central control, Cork Airport will be in a position to aggressively seek new business and offer airlines and passengers a wide range of choice.
Employees at the airport have nothing to fear from the proposed change. It is an opportunity that should be enthusiastically embraced and fully supported. If it is not grasped, there is no guarantee that such a chance for growth and expansion for Cork Airport will come around again. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, intends to put in place a structure that will be a launching pad for a new era of expansion.
The chairman of the new Cork Airport authority, Mr. Joe Gantly, is a businessman who is held in the highest regard in Cork and abroad. He is managing director of Apple Computers in Europe. In Cork, where Apple employs 1,200 people, he is respected as a person of the highest calibre, a man who has clearly proven that he can deliver in a highly competitive business arena. Under his leadership, Cork Airport will finally be allowed to show its true potential. It will benefit from the experience, enthusiasm and energy of the progressive director of Cork Airport, Mr. Joe O'Connor.
I know that workers at Cork and other airports are concerned about how the change will affect their positions. I understand their fears and concerns. The Minister, Deputy Brennan, has had meetings with the Aer Rianta unions on several occasions and has assured them repeatedly that there will be no compulsory job losses and that there will be no change in the terms of employment and conditions the workers enjoy. He has stated clearly that the concerns of the unions will be fully addressed on an ongoing basis between now and the intended date of the establishment of the new airport authorities next year. He is fully convinced that all airports will benefit under the new proposals, if they rise to the challenge.
The Government has taken a brave step in giving the three airports their independence. I am fully convinced that the new, independent Cork Airport will have the drive and expertise to expand business on a scale that could never be attained under the old regime. The move will result in a boom in business for Cork Airport. It will bring more, not fewer, jobs to the region.
When the proposals for the break-up of Aer Rianta were announced, I was delighted to hear that Cork Chamber of Commerce and all the business interests in Cork fully supported the Minister. I do not understand how one single union body in Dublin Airport, the dominant body, holds such sway over the workers in the other two airports. It is trying to convince them that the breaking away of Cork Airport would be bad for the workers and the region. That is not the case.
It is important to note the key points. The Government has decided to establish Cork Airport as an autonomous State-owned airport independent of Aer Rianta. The airport will remain in full State ownership. The target is to establish a new airport authority to manage and operate it on a commercial basis within the next 12 months. The new board will be composed of persons of the highest calibre, including trade union representatives. It will bring together international, national and regional expertise, strong leadership and a focused commitment to the growth and development of Cork Airport. The chairperson designate and deputy chairperson designate will also be members of the Aer Rianta board to be dissolved in 12 months and which will assist the Minister for Transport in implementing the decision on full autonomy for Cork Airport.
The major development programme under way will proceed on schedule. It is heartening to see the new road network being built and the footprint for the new car park and terminal. The debt associated with this investment programme, together with the existing debt of €40 million and interest payments of more than €6 million, will be removed from Cork Airport. This decision heralds the beginning of a challenging and exciting new era for Cork Airport which will be free to compete with other airports and vigorously pursue new business, free from central control. European traffic grew by 16% in 2002.
Given this new debt-free beginning and under strong and visionary leadership, Cork Airport will have the opportunity to expand and develop on a scale never before envisaged. The reforms involve bringing in more airlines to Ireland. No privatisation is proposed. No job losses will result. There will be no change in the terms and conditions of workers in Cork Airport.
In summary, these changes are about a new beginning for Cork Airport, more choice for the people of Cork and surrounding areas, growth in jobs and business and an opportunity for the airport to embrace enthusiastically the challenges that lie ahead. While I do not want him to get a swelled head, we are fortunate to have a Minister for Transport with vision to see the future potential for Cork, Shannon and Dublin airports. I commend him for giving us an opportunity in the Cork area to have our own autonomous airport structure within State control so as to allow us to develop our regional business, as we have been doing in recent years. I have had many informal meetings with those working in Cork Airport to reassure them that they have nothing to fear and that, due to their track record of hard work, they will go from success to success.