I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Deputies will be aware that this Bill was initiated in Seanad Éireann on 9 June and was passed there on 16 June. I wish to acknowledge the amendments that were made to the Bill during its passage in that House and I believe the Bill has improved as a result. I propose to bring forward two further amendments on Committee Stage here, the subject matter of which initially arose in the Seanad. I gave an undertaking in at least one case that we would deal with the matter in this House.
The purpose of the Aviation (Preclearance) Bill 2009 is to give legal effect to a landmark intergovernmental agreement reached last November between Ireland and the United States of America on air transport preclearance. Air transport preclearance means that passengers of US bound flights from Ireland can be fully cleared for entry to the US in respect of all necessary US controls and checks, including US immigration, customs, agriculture and security prior to departure. That will allow aircraft to land at any US airport and will facilitate easy onward connectivity to all points within the United States.
Preclearance is a very significant development for Irish aviation. As well as improving the passenger experience for those travelling to the US, preclearance should, over time, contribute significantly to the growth of new business for Irish airports as airlines take advantage of unique opportunities arising from access to a wider range of airports in the US.
Preclearance for commercial aircraft is due to commence at Shannon on 29 July next and for private aircraft there in September. Preclearance is due to be introduced at Dublin airport when terminal 2 opens next year.
Preclearance is the process whereby all inspection and clearance requirements under US laws for travellers arriving into the US are carried out at the departing airport. Such passengers arriving at US airports are then processed without any further official contact. On arrival at the US airport they will have a status similar to that of passengers arriving from another US airport.
For passengers the benefits are that they are processed through all US entry procedures before they travel and knowing that when they arrive at their destination, they will have an uninterrupted passage through the US airport. In addition, passengers will be able to travel onward to other US destinations while remaining airside thereby obviating the need for further security and baggage checks.
For the airport authority the benefit is that they will now be able to market its airport as a hub for US bound flights having these preclearance advantages. This service is not on offer to any other European country.
The recent announcement by Delta and Aer Lingus of the suspension of a number of transatlantic services from Shannon for the winter season is very disappointing news, especially in the context of preclearance commencing there in a matter of weeks. While my initial concerns, on hearing of these decisions, related to the economic impact they would have on business and tourism in the region, I was also concerned that a reduction in transatlantic services could generate a negative response from the US side in regard to the introduction of preclearance. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting the US Secretary for Homeland Security, Ms Janet Napolitano, for discussions on preclearance and had the opportunity of putting that point to her. I was glad to receive her reassurance that the US is committed to preclearance for Ireland and the commitment will not be affected by the suspension of some winter services to the US.
Both Ireland and the US expect the level of transatlantic flights to be precleared at Shannon will increase over time once the advantages that preclearance brings become clear to all airlines. The introduction of preclearance in Shannon Airport this summer is not only a vote of confidence in its current position as a key Irish airport. It is also an investment for the future to position Ireland to take maximum advantage of the aviation opportunities that will arise when the world economy climbs out of the current recession. I am reinforced in that view because I understand the US authorities have no plans to introduce similar facilities elsewhere in Europe. This provides Irish airports with a unique marketing opportunity in attracting airlines and creating new business in the key transatlantic aviation market.
Under this legislation, US preclearance officers in Ireland will be empowered to carry out their duties in dealing with requests for entry into the US. In other words, the only powers to be exercised by preclearance officers at Dublin and Shannon Airports will derive from this legislation and will only be exercisable within clearly defined preclearance areas. Other powers assigned to preclearance officers in the United States are derived from US law but these are not exercisable in Ireland in the performance of preclearance duties.
The preclearance agreement with the United States, on which this legislation is based, was drafted in close co-operation with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure it is consistent with the Irish Constitution. Accordingly, only the laws of Ireland will apply at all times in the preclearance facility and the various preclearance areas. The only powers that can be exercised by a preclearance officer are those created by the Oireachtas under this legislation.
The transatlantic aviation market is of enormous strategic, economic and cultural importance to Ireland. However, the ongoing global recession and high aviation fuel costs are having a seriously negative impact on the industry. Consumer demand for air travel has fallen sharply in recent months and transatlantic traffic is being hit particularly hard this year. The challenge is to ensure Irish aviation is well positioned to take advantage of the economic recovery when that comes. In that context the full potential of preclearance can be realised, including the promotion of Irish airports as hubs for in-transit preclearance.
Several outside expressions of interest in preclearance have been made. British Airways has announced that from the autumn it will be operating a business class only service from London City Airport to the US with a stopover at Shannon, precisely for the purpose of taking advantage of the preclearance services there. Initially this will be a once-daily service which will expand to a twice-daily service in a matter of weeks. Preclearance is also being introduced at Shannon for private US-bound aircraft from September next. Similar to the interest shown by commercial aviation, we can expect an increase in private and business aircraft routing through Shannon to take advantage of preclearance. Each additional aircraft routing through Shannon for preclearance will create a positive commercial impact on the airport and the surrounding regional economy.
Under this legislation, preclearance officers of the US Customs and Border Protection Service will be authorised to carry out certain functions with passengers and aircraft bound for the US at designated preclearance areas of Irish airports that would otherwise be carried out on arrival in the US. The functions of preclearance officers in Ireland shall include the inspection of individuals, their goods and aircraft, the searching of individuals, with the assistance of a member of An Garda Síochána in certain circumstances, and the holding of individuals, where the circumstances warrant it, pending the arrival of a member of An Garda Síochána who would then take charge.
Where, during the course of an inspection, a preclearance officer discovers an item the possession of which constitutes an offence under Irish law, the preclearance officer would seek the assistance of an Irish law enforcement officer. If a situation arises where goods need to be seized, they shall be seized by an Irish law enforcement officer. The Bill makes provision for a right of appeal in situations where goods have been seized.
The necessary preclearance facilities will be provided by the airport authority and the costs recovered from the participating airlines through a passenger charge.
When negotiating the agreement, both sides saw the merit in not including in the agreement, the details of operational procedures for the practical implementation of preclearance on the ground. It was decided that these would be negotiated separately between the parties and agreed before implementing preclearance.
Section 1 provides for the interpretation of the Act. Section 2 enables the Minister to make regulations designating preclearance areas at the airports. In such areas US preclearance officers would be able to undertake necessary procedures to grant preclearance to passengers seeking entry to the US and necessary security safeguards would be implemented.
Section 3 outlines the duties and responsibilities of travellers in the preclearance area such as an obligation to provide an accurate written declaration of all goods and to comply with the lawful requirements of an Irish law enforcement officer or a preclearance officer. Failure to adhere to such obligations constitutes an offence. Seanad Éireann adopted an amendment to this section which provides that it shall be a good defence to show that one had reasonable grounds for believing that his or her declaration was duly made in accordance with this section.
Section 4 provides the traveller with a right to withdraw from the preclearance area at any time, subject to certain exceptions relating to threatening or obstructive behaviour by the traveller or where a person is suspected of committing an offence under Irish law.
Section 5 outlines the functions of preclearance officers when processing applications for preclearance, including powers to search a traveller and his goods with his consent and to search a person and his goods in the preclearance area without warrant when suspected of posing an immediate threat. Preclearance officers may also detain a person or private aircraft where an offence is suspected and to forthwith deliver that person or private aircraft into the custody of an Irish law enforcement officer to be dealt with in accordance with Irish law. Subject to section 5(4), preclearance officers may also detain goods, which are not accurately declared by a traveller and forthwith deliver them to an Irish law enforcement officer for the purposes of sections 8 to 10, inclusive, which deal with a special procedure for seizure and detention of goods to be administered by the Revenue Commissioners. Under section 5(5) preclearance officers, as a condition for the grant of preclearance, may require the traveller to pay a sum of money that would be payable by that traveller on postclearance in respect of any particular goods or to surrender the goods.
Section 6 sets out the functions of Irish law enforcement officers in the preclearance area where a person is suspected of making a false declaration of goods, or is in possession of goods that is controlled or prohibited in the State, or if the person is suspected of otherwise posing a threat to persons in the preclearance area. An Irish law enforcement officer may search the person without warrant and detain the person for such time as is reasonably necessary for carrying out the search subject to certain provisions. An Irish law enforcement officer may examine, seize or detain anything found in the course of the search that might be required as evidence in a prosecution. Section 6(6) provides the powers granted under section 6 shall not prejudice other powers exercised by Irish law enforcement officers to search or to seize or detain goods.
Section 7 restricts entry into the preclearance area to preclearance officers, travellers and other authorised personnel. It also sets out the powers enjoyed by preclearance officers and Irish law enforcement officers in the interests of security and the proper functioning of the preclearance area. It empowers such officers to ask a person to leave the preclearance area in certain circumstances. A person who contravenes this provision shall be guilty of an offence. Sections 8 to 10 provide for the seizure of goods not declared or falsely declared, the procedures for making a claim to the Revenue Commissioners in respect of goods seized and the procedures to be followed by the Revenue Commissioners in the event of the seizure of goods and the processing of claims by the Revenue Commissioners.
Section 11 provides that the responsibility for costs incurred in respect of transit passengers who are refused preclearance are to be borne by the air carrier. The air carrier may recoup the costs from the traveller. Section 12 clarifies the status of in-transit preclearance travellers under the Aliens Act 1935 and the Immigration Act 2004. Section 13 provides for privileges and immunities to be enjoyed by citizens of the United States who are assigned to carry out preclearance functions in the State under this Act. In line with Article IV(4) of the relevant agreement, section 13(6) enables any person who would be precluded from suing the US authorities because of immunity granted under this section, to sue the Minister.
Section 14 empowers an airport authority to charge fees to air carriers availing of preclearance. Section 15 is a standard provision relating to the power of the Minister to incur expenses in the administration of the Act. Section 16 gives the Minister the power to make general regulations as necessary to give effect to the Act and agreement and to make regulations to ensure the integrity, security and proper functioning of preclearance areas. Sections 17 and 18 provide for the offences and penalties to be applied under the Act. Section 17 was amended in the Seanad to ensure that the penalty for assaulting a member of the Garda Síochána is no less than the penalty already provided for in the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. Sections 19 to 21 provide for the repeal of the Air Navigation and Transport (Preinspection) Act 1986, a minor amendment to the Third Schedule to the Freedom of Information Act 1997 and for the Short Title and commencement of the Act.
I have given a general overview of the Bill before the House, which does not have significant financial or staffing implications for the Exchequer. The potential of the legislation, in so far as job creation and the long-term economic benefits for Ireland are concerned, is obvious. Preclearance will give the aviation industry an opportunity to develop business in this country's key international gateways. While the immediate challenge will be to weather the current recession, I firmly believe all international airlines will fully embrace this unique opportunity to increase their business over the long term. This is an important development for our State airports, particularly Shannon Airport where preclearance will be introduced a full year ahead of Dublin Airport. I urge the airport authorities to fully utilise the unique marketing advantage they will have. Good international air access is a key factor in mitigating the impact of Ireland's peripheral location. I refer in particular to that of the west of Ireland. This is even more important in these recessionary times. Growth in air transport links has played a significant part in our economic success since the mid-1990s. This initiative will help to ensure that air transport plays an even greater role in our economic recovery. I commend the Bill to the House.