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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Jun 2009

Vol. 686 No. 2

Aviation (Preclearance) Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I call Deputy O'Donnell. I was informed that Deputy Dooley had concluded. Is there some time left in Deputy Dooley's slot? I am informed there is not.

I wish to share time with Deputy Mitchell.

I will start on a positive note. I welcome that this legislation is going through the Dáil before the summer recess. I raised the matter on the Order of Business with the Taoiseach more than a week ago and expressed the view that it should come before the Dáil before the summer recess to ensure that Shannon Airport was accommodated. The Minister will be aware that the building and other works are already in place in Shannon to allow it to proceed by the end of July. I note the Bill's explanatory memorandum states:

The Preclearance Agreement will come into force following the enactment of the Aviation (Preclearance) Bill 2009 and an exchange of diplomatic notes confirming that certain conditions have been met, including inter alia, the existence of sufficient traffic at the relevant airport and the provision of adequate security to protect the preclearance facility and all personnel.

I ask the Minister to indicate the status of those particular issues. When does he expect that the diplomatic notes will have been exchanged and the full preclearance facility can become operational at Shannon Airport? Deputy Breen mentioned that, on the face of it, there does not appear to be preclearance for cargo. If that is the case, does the Minister envisage it coming into being at some stage, hopefully sooner rather than later?

On a positive note, the exclusive agreement between the US and Ireland on preclearance for Shannon Airport and at a later stage Dublin Airport gives a competitive advantage to Ireland over the rest of the EU. We often talk about exports and marketing Ireland. Preclearance provides an opportunity to market Shannon, the mid-west and western region. In that regard I am somewhat disappointed with what has happened to the tourism and economic development plan. I was a member of the Mid-West Regional Authority when it was prepared. It was commissioned by the Minister's predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Martin Cullen. It was a €53 million fund with €44 million over five years for marketing and €9 million for route support. The plan envisaged preclearance facilities being in place by the end of 2007 and €9 million per year to market the airport. Lo and behold, we are now looking at the bones of €4.5 million. This should be considered in terms of Ireland Inc. Ireland is getting a competitive advantage for our two main international airports and we need to exploit it. This needs proper funding and I hope the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will have news for us tonight regarding that funding because this should be a win-win situation.

The Minister stated:

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... Preclearance is also being introduced at Shannon for private US-bound aircraft from September next.

That is all good news and I welcome it. However, we need funding to ensure that we get maximum value from the preclearance services. The Minister will know my views on Aer Lingus's recent announcement of its intention to reduce its transatlantic services. Aer Lingus will almost halve its transatlantic services from the autumn. The service to Boston will reduce from seven flights a week to four and the service to Chicago will reduce from three flights a week to no flight. Those flights will go to Dublin. On behalf of the taxpayer, the Minister for Finance has a 25% stake in Aer Lingus and gets to nominate three board directors. When there was only one State nominee, we called on the Minister to get the full State representation on the board and the Minister decided to nominate an additional two directors. At that time he specifically stated this was to protect strategic interests. Nothing could be more strategic than protecting the western seaboard and the mid-west in terms of Shannon.

Preclearance is to be commended. It is a phenomenal facility. Shannon and the mid-west have shown they are up to the task given that the airport is ready to proceed by the end of July. I ask the Minister to use the Government's 25% stake in Aer Lingus to ask it to defer any decisions on the Boston and Chicago flights until the preclearance is operational to see how it works. The Government should market it properly and put into practice balanced regional development. I am trying to be positive tonight. The preclearance facility is a win-win for Shannon Airport, the mid-west and western region. It is a win-win for Ireland Inc. and for exports. It effectively brings people into the country. At present, American tourists bring €280 million into Shannon, the mid-west and the western region. There is €35 billion in US multinational investment in the mid-west and the western region. The sheer scale of that indicates its importance.

A negative by-product of the reduction of transatlantic flights out of Shannon from 14 to eight per week is that flights between Shannon and Dublin reduce from ten flights a week to four. While I am open to correction from the Minister, on my analysis there will be no flights three days a week between Shannon and Dublin. We also get connectivity out of Dublin. To give context to this, when Aer Lingus discontinued its profitable flights between Shannon and Heathrow, the decision was short-sighted as has subsequently been proved. Not only has Aer Lingus resumed this service, but it has also announced that effective from 25 October, an A320 aircraft will be based at Shannon which will facilitate an increase in the Shannon-Heathrow services to three per day, subject to confirmation of slots. That is another positive story. The Shannon to Heathrow service should never have been stopped.

I am concerned at the reduction of transatlantic flights. Not only do we have a marketing tool in terms of preclearance for Shannon Airport, from the end of July we will have a comparative advantage over our EU counterparts in terms of airports. We must exploit this advantage by ensuring we properly fund tourism through the €53 million provided in the tourism and economic development plan. The Government should use its 25% stake in Aer Lingus to ensure there is no downgrading of the number of flights between Boston and Chicago into New York. Let us see how preclearance works and let us put in place funding. Preclearance has implications for us in terms of connectivity to Dublin through Shannon.

Fine Gael would like the air travel tax to be abolished. Ryanair and Aer Lingus have stated it is one of the contributing factors in their reducing transatlantic flights and for the reduction in other flights by Ryanair. The Minister should take the bull by the horns and ask the Minister for Finance to abolish this tax which makes no sense. It is preventing people from travelling here and it makes no sense. We need to work together to ensure preclearance is up and running as a matter of urgency. I hope the Minister can confirm that it will be operational by the end of July and that the required funding in this regard will be put in place. The Government should use its 25% stake in Aer Lingus to ensure the transatlantic flights continue, which will be a good news story for Shannon, the mid-west and Ireland Inc.

I, too, welcome this legislation which has the potential to be of huge benefit to Ireland from a tourism and transport perspective. I have long been of the view that tourism and transport are inextricably linked and should not alone be housed in the same Department but should be part of a major economic Department, a view with which An Bord Snip agrees. This is essential given the importance of tourism to national and regional employment and to our economic development.

Transport policy is essential to tourism policy and to our economic development. As an island country, considerations such as access to the country and our need to move people and goods in and out of the country as seamlessly as possible are considerations that should supersede any others with which Government concerns itself. All decisions, regardless of from what Department they come, should be accessed-proofed by Government. The truth is that our island status is a huge disadvantage to us when it comes to traded goods and tourism. It behoves us to do everything possible to leapfrog that disadvantage. The introduction of a departure tax and the Minister's continued defence of it is perplexing.

I want, however, to be positive about this legislation because I believe it will give us an enormous competitive advantage. Whether going on holidays or on business to the United States, anybody who has stood in line in New York, Washington or Chicago and watched people miss flights, listened to screaming babies and their stressed out parents or witnessed people fainting will see the enormous advantage of preclearance for passengers and airlines. I assume the conditions available to people in Shannon or Dublin will be much more comfortable and less crowded than they are at airports in America.

I recently met with the tourism renewal group and I was a little disappointed to hear it say it did not see any potential for tourism or Shannon in the introduction of preclearance facilities at Shannon. It believes this to be a transit throughpoint for people, which is to miss the importance of this facility. The introduction of preclearance facilities has the potential to put Shannon back on the map and to allow it to play the role it played in the 1950s, namely, the entrance point to Ireland, the West and Europe from the United States and vice versa. Also, quite apart from it bringing tourists into Ireland, it can be the salvation of Shannon Airport. It will help to make it a viable and sustainable airport. I do not believe I am scaremongering in saying that currently it is neither. It desperately needs an offering to airlines that will give it a key advantage over other airports. It will also offer a lifeline to Aer Lingus as an airline with an established transatlantic route out of Shannon.

It is unfortunate that the introduction of this facility was delayed to the extent that it coincides with the recession and the current euro-dollar exchange rate. Given few airlines have taken advantage of the "Open Skies", it may be that other European airlines will not fully appreciate or take advantage of the full benefits of preclearance. I am pleased that British Airways has confirmed its intention to route its flights from London City Airport through Shannon. It was previously unclear whether such flights would be non-stop, and to hear the stop-over confirmed is good news.

The marketing of this advantage to every EU airport and airline flying the transatlantic route must be a national undertaking with the full backing of every Department. It cannot be left to the Dublin Airport Authority alone. While it is important to the authority, it is crucial for the entire country. I use the words "national undertaking" as I believe in tourism we already have a national crisis. By the end of this year, 50,000 jobs will be lost in this sector, which scarcely gets a line of print. It is perplexing that the Minister with responsibility for tourism believes the departure tax is an appropriate response for an industry ailing to that extent. If any other sector were losing even 10% of that number of jobs, it would receive huge headlines, task forces would be established and there would be cross-departmental efforts to reverse the fall. Tourism is suffering as a result of a failure to realise how important it is to our economy, in particular to employment.

As stated, preclearance is a facility in Europe which is unique to Ireland, which will initially commence in Shannon and later in Dublin. I understand the plan was to open the facility in Dublin following completion of Terminal 2. However, I am not convinced Terminal 2 will open when completed in 2010. It appears there would not be much point in the Dublin Airport Authority taking on the considerable additional operating costs associated with opening that terminal when the travel market is contracting with fewer people travelling through Dublin Airport. It may be that all our eggs are going to be in Shannon for the foreseeable future.

The private jet preclearance facility is unique to Shannon. This, too, has huge potential but only if private jet owners know about it. What efforts are being made to market this aspect of the preclearance facility, which may be even more important than the availability of the facility to commercial airlines? The prospect for business people of being able to fly direct into a domestic airport in America, perhaps close to their business destination, is very attractive. Again, it is only attractive if they know about it.

I have two major concerns, namely, that we market this facility and provide it at reasonable cost. I understand the cost being quoted is €10.50 per passenger in addition to the €1.50 landing charge. While I understand the need to defray costs, I wonder what exactly are the costs beyond the initial setting up of the facility, which I appreciate. While there may be security costs involved, security is currently provided in respect of the US facility already in place in Shannon and Dublin. Any outlay by the Exchequer should be viewed as an investment that will bring an even bigger prize. Overcharging may kill the goose that has the potential to lay a golden egg for us and the potential to save Shannon Airport, regional tourism and be of enormous assistance to Aer Lingus. It would be short-sighted to squeeze the last euro of income from it as we might be sacrificing something much more important.

Even more worrying is the stipulation in the legislation that the facility will not be set up without the guarantee of sufficient numbers.

The explanatory memoranda to the Bill state that the provision of preclearance facilities at an Irish airport will be contingent upon the existence of sufficient traffic to make feasible the efficient operation of the preclearance facility. That makes my blood run cold when we see the loss of flights from both Delta Airlines and Aer Lingus. What numbers will make this viable from the US perspective? It will not keep a facility running for seasonal use or occasional flights. It is extraordinary that Aer Lingus would cut flights from Shannon just when it is in pole position to capitalise on the opportunities this offers. It would be catastrophic for Ireland if we fail to capitalise on this unique competitive advantage. I ask the Minister to tell the House what numbers would be sufficient to make the facility viable.

I welcome this Bill and I commend all those involved in bringing it to this Stage. It was moved in the Seanad on 9 June and passed there on 16 June. It now comes before us for all Stages to be passed and I hope it enjoys the support of all parties in the House.

It is important to emphasise that the Minister and his Department succeeded in negotiating this agreement with the US authorities for the preclearance of passengers bound for the United States from Irish airports. It is positive to note the Bill, when enacted, will commence in Shannon Airport on 29 July before coming into effect when the new terminal opens in Dublin Airport early next year. It is critically important for the growth in traffic through Irish airports bound for the United States because we will be the only country in Europe with this facility. The Minister said he hoped this will increase traffic through the airport but apart from the airlines using Shannon and Dublin Airports, other airlines will notice passengers voting with their feet and when they see they can avail of this facility in an Irish airport it will attract a lot of attention. I hope it will get the publicity across Europe that it deserves.

Ireland and the US have a long history in aviation, going back to Alcock and Browne crash landing in Connemara, the flying boats in Foynes in County Limerick and Shannon becoming popular in the jet age as the closest point to the US. This legislation continues that relationship between the two countries and it is important to acknowledge that. I hope the recent decisions by Delta Airlines and Aer Lingus to suspend some of their winter flights from Shannon will be reversed. This undertaking by the authorities in Ireland and the US should lead to a review, if nothing else, of those decisions after the summer season.

Shannon Airport must play its part. I am not from the mid-west, I use Dublin Airport most frequently, and the congestion there is off-putting. Many people from the midlands and south prefer to use Shannon Airport if flights are available. It is unfortunate that there was such a delay with the construction of the new terminal at Dublin Airport. It was not until the latter stages of the economic boom that there was progress in this area. The airports should be self financing. They have a cash cow, a customer base they should use. That does not mean they should abuse that base. Some of the car parking charges in Dublin Airport were prohibitive and the authorities there abused their monopoly. It was only when competition entered the market and numbers using the car parks fell that they decided to cut prices.

In the past ten years there has been a significant increase in the volume of traffic through our regional airports. The Government, through the European Union, has been assisting these airports so they can survive because that would be impossible on a commercial basis. In that context I cannot understand why more serious thought was not given to the use of Baldonnel. The Department of Defence has invested significant amounts in the military aerodrome. It is near Dublin and has the potential to take some of the strain from Dublin Airport. There are models in Europe where military aerodromes are also used for civilian flights and the Minister should have a look at this in the future.

I welcome the Bill. Its purpose is to give legal effect to the preclearance agreement signed by the Minister and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in Washington in November 2008. We will now be able to allow aircraft to land at an extensive range of US airports, facilitating easy connectivity to all points within the United States. By improving the passenger experience of those travelling to the US, preclearance should contribute significantly to growth in travel to the US and to new business for Irish airports.

This facility starts in Shannon on 29 July next and in Dublin Airport next year. I welcome the fact that the US authorities have no plans to introduce similar facilities elsewhere in Europe. Preclearance offers significant marketing opportunities for Irish airports. British Airways is considering a business class only service from London City Airport to the United States with a stop at Shannon precisely for the purpose of taking advantage of preclearance services. We can expect an increase in private and business aircraft through Shannon and I welcome the potential job creation for the mid-west. There are great opportunities also for Aer Lingus and air transport will play a major role in our economic recovery. Ireland is a peripheral location and the west and mid-west are even more peripheral. There is now a great competitive advantage in terms of attracting tourism but there is also the question of the charges which I hope will be reasonable.

We are all aware of the delays at airports in the United States, with queues to clear immigration that last for hours and further queues for onward flights. It was stated that the personnel who carry out inspections would have immunity, which raises the question of whether there will be controls and an appeals mechanism. People who obtain preclearance will have the same privileges as a US citizen arriving in the US. This is the only way to deal with the issue because people may feel threatened and use other ways of entering the US. The American authorities, as we know, are strict about travel documentation and they introduced the biometric passport to enforce their strict regulations.

As Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, I dealt with the issue of passports and introduced a Bill to update the situation. There seem to be queries with regard to larger photographs for diplomatic and official passports. The Minister might reply on this issue.

The mention of people trying to get into the United States in different ways raises the issue of undocumented Irish immigrants in the US. People in that situation have encountered serious difficulties in coming home on the occasion of family bereavements or weddings. They may also need medical treatment and find it unaffordable, and elderly Irish immigrants may have concerns about the cost of long-stay hospitals, nursing homes or carers, as occurred in a situation I was dealing with in recent times. This is a real issue affecting Irish people and we must continue to work on it.

This Bill will be of great benefit to the economy and commerce in this country as well as the passengers concerned. I hope Shannon Airport will get more business in Europe. It always amazes me that it takes so long to get from any Irish airport to eastern Europe, for example, even though Ireland is a member of the EU. I used to notice when I was on the Council of Europe that one had to get three flights to travel to new member states. Our MEPs talk regularly about the poor service to Strasbourg for meetings of the European Parliament. These are issues that will, I hope, be dealt with. We have a strong business relationship with the US and I hope the Bill will attract industry to this country, including American multinationals, and provide new business opportunities.

The Department of Transport is the lead Department with regard to radioactive materials. We do not have a central facility in this regard and there is an issue of whether the US preclearance officers have the necessary instruments to identify radioactive materials. Has a protocol been devised for the finding of radioactive materials? There are take-back agreements with suppliers but this does not always apply to colleges and laboratories. We need to clarify such issues.

This Bill is a vote of confidence in the Shannon region. Shannon Airport is a key Irish airport and this agreement will give it a competitive advantage, which is important in the context of the recession. I hope when the world economy improves we will have other aviation opportunities. Shannon is an excellent facility. I am honoured to be living close to both Shannon and Knock airports. As has been mentioned, Shannon has great facilities and does not have the same congestion as we see at some of the city airports. I hope we can market this preclearance facility at a reasonable price. This should be a successful business development and I hope tourism and commerce will continue to develop in the Shannon and mid-west region.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important Bill, which is so relevant to the mid-west region. Shannon Airport, as we know, is of considerable strategic importance to the mid-west region, particularly in terms of jobs and tourism both inward and outward.

Many of our discussions and debates about Shannon Airport hinge on Aer Lingus, but it is important to mention that Ryanair has made a significant contribution to the revolution on low-cost travel and the opening up of the mid-west region by allowing Irish people to travel to destinations across Europe and further afield and by bringing inward tourism from these areas. We also need to acknowledge that it was Government policy applied consistently over the years that created and developed Shannon Airport and the wider Shannon region as a viable industrial area, and acknowledge the imaginative thinking that allowed the creation of the Shannon Free Zone and the reduced rates of corporation tax which helped attract foreign direct investment to the region.

With regard to the issue of the €10 travel tax, we should not allow Shannon Airport to become a political football again. Nobody — whether a bed and breakfast proprietor, a hotelier, a tourism promoter or an ordinary member of the public — has contacted me as a public representative and legislator, to lodge a complaint about the travel tax. Our friends opposite have made a number of points in this regard, but I do not believe the decision a person takes to travel or not depends on a €10 travel tax.

Maybe it should be €20 or €30.

I do not think it is a factor that should come into the decision. I am just mentioning the fact that nobody has brought this to my attention as a representative of the region.

Does the Deputy think people should pay more?

I did not say that. The Deputy should not misrepresent what I am saying.

My constituency in County Limerick has benefited enormously from foreign direct investment and the good, sustainable jobs that have derived from it such as those in Kostal and Wyeth. Just outside my constituency, Analog Devices and Johnson & Johnson have provided many valuable jobs for constituents of mine and continue to do so.

In the midst of all the doom and gloom about the recession, which is, as we know, affecting Europe and the rest of the world, there is an interesting statistic that exports in this country have fallen by about 5%, in contrast with the rest of the EU, where they have fallen by about 20%. From that perspective we can see the valuable input of our foreign direct investors and manufacturing companies. Our exports are holding to a degree of -5%, which is relatively good compared with other areas. The job losses at Dell were unfortunate, but we must ask why this happened. The answer is simple, namely, our competitiveness has suffered.

The CEO of Enterprise Ireland recently appeared at the Committee of Public Accounts, where he said that we must move away from our manufacturing base. However, I do not entirely agree with this view. We should not just throw our hands up. We must address the issue of competitiveness. It is a fact that the establishment of the preclearance facility and the restoration of competitiveness for the region go hand in hand. I compliment the Government and the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, on their honest endeavours in this regard. The pulling together of this deal with the US authorities will result in many benefits for the region. For example, it will afford the opportunity for State agencies that are marketing the region and the country to have a captive audience of business people and promoters who are passing through the region. It will also provide increased traffic and open up the possibility of bringing new airlines to the region. Shannon Airport is a tremendous facility.

It is also worth noting that the arrangement between Ireland and the US authorities is the only such arrangement in Europe. As Ireland is an island nation on the periphery of Europe, this will be extremely important in enhancing our competitiveness. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It is a job well done.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Aviation (Preclearance) Bill 2009, particularly in reference to the positive factors for the mid-west region. Shannon Airport provides am outstanding transport service to a large geographical area, with people travelling from throughout the State and particularly from counties Limerick, Clare, Tipperary, Cork, Kerry and Galway to fly to countries all over the world. It is a resource for which people in my constituency are very grateful. It is invaluable for commerce, tourism and in terms of providing a connection to Europe, the United States and further afield.

However, last year saw the first reduction in passenger numbers at the airport since the Gulf War in 1991. We are all aware that the aviation industry in Ireland and across Europe is struggling. Under the measures set out in this legislation, Shannon Airport expects to facilitate 70 jets per day at its preclearance facility, including two daily British Airways business flights. With further difficulties expected in the aviation sector, this will be a great way of bringing traffic though the airport.

We should make the most of this opportunity by ensuring that Shannon Airport's preclearance capability is well advertised and is supported by a positive experience for passengers in the airport. Information must be provided to ensure passengers are aware in advance of attractions in the area and its suitability for tourists. If we work to make Shannon synonymous with transatlantic travel and to ensure that people are aware of its many positive attributes as an area to visit, passengers are likely to stop over in Ireland on their way to other destinations, taking advantage of our wonderful scenery, people and sporting and cultural attractions, including race meeting, festivals and so on.

The Shannon region is an area starved of visitors despite all these advantages. That is why I am so pleased to welcome an innovation which will make us a European leader in aviation and will provide a fantastic facility for passengers and airlines alike. This new string to Shannon Airport's bow is essentially the equivalent of an infrastructural investment and, as such, provides a huge boost to the entire area. If this preclearance facility is properly managed and promoted, it can make Shannon — and Dublin, once the facility there is operational — a hub for both Europe and the United States, offering passengers smooth, easy and efficient flying. By allowing customers to preclear customs, immigration and agricultural inspections in a special designated area in the airport, we can offer them a distinct incentive. They can fly into Shannon before proceeding to the United States, clear all the necessary checks and prevent any queues, delays, or difficulties at their destination, thereby making the process quicker and more efficient. Disembarking in the United States will be a quicker and smoother process for passengers as a result.

From the perspective of the airlines, this measure will make Shannon Airport a centre for low-cost flying. Passengers will be treated as though they are on an internal flight from Shannon onwards, which will have huge cost savings for airlines. The cost per passenger will be only €10.50. By enabling airlines to fly directly without stopover to airports without passengers having to go through the immigration controls required heretofore, airlines can pay vastly reduced fees to smaller airports that are anxious for this business. In addition, this legislation has the potential to attract large numbers of visitors to a region that is crying out for tourism.

I thank Deputies for their positive contributions to the debate on this legislation. Without exception, there was praise for these measures and for the agreement we have made. To the Deputies who queried why it took so long to reach agreement, I remind them that a similar deal with Canada took seven years to negotiate. I spoke to various members of Congress in the United States and people who were involved in various lobbying campaigns, and they were all amazed that the agreement was concluded so quickly. The reason for this was the commitment of both sides and the relationship that exists between our two countries, including our affinity in terms of aviation policy generally, as referred to by so many Deputies. In particular, the link between Shannon and the United States was often mentioned to me during the negotiations.

Deputies O'Dowd, Kitt, Broughan and others asked about the cost of these measures. The capital cost of providing preclearance facilities at Shannon Airport will be approximately €20 million. Deputies from that region will be aware of the work that is ongoing in this regard and which will be completed in July. The best estimate we have for Dublin Airport, where the facilities will be provided as part of the T2 project, is that it will cost approximately €30 million. In regard to operational costs, the various agencies that are involved, including the Garda, Customs and Excise, airport authorities, Revenue and so on, are being asked to work within existing resources. The cost of retaining customs and border patrol personnel is a matter for the United States authorities and involves no cost to the Exchequer.

Deputy O'Dowd asked why a regulatory impact assessment was not undertaken. It was not considered necessary in this case because the legislation does not require an addition to regulation. Deputies Breen and Broughan asked about the charges to passengers. The charge at Shannon Airport will be €10.50 per passenger but the charge at Dublin is not yet known. This cost is based at Shannon, as it will be at Dublin, on the economic costs of providing the necessary services. The decision in regard to the level of costs is one for the airport authorities themselves rather than for the customs and border patrol, the airlines or the Minister for Transport.

Almost every Deputy who spoke pointed out that this measure represents a wonderful opportunity for the Shannon region and the mid-west in general. I agree it is vital that all of this should be marketed. It is the Government's job to provide the best possible conditions in which businesses must operate. We did this by providing the new preclearance facility in the mid-west. As many Deputies on all sides have freely acknowledged, this has provided Shannon Airport with a competitive advantage. Rather than looking elsewhere for salvation, the airport should continue to pursue the approach I have observed in various visits to the facility in the past 12 to 15 months. This is exemplified by the establishment of Atlantic Way and the coming together of many organisations in the mid-west region to help themselves.

The Government has provided a preclearance facility which gives the region competitive advantage. It is now up to the region to make use of and capitalise on this facility because the competitive advantage it offers will not last forever. In this regard, Deputy Broughan asked when a preclearance facility at Dublin Airport will come on stream. This is due by the end of next year with the opening of T2. Shannon Airport's advantage over Dublin Airport in terms of preclearance facilities will last for 12 to 15 months and both airports will have a considerable time advantage over all other airports in Europe because they will have the only preclearance facilities in Europe for some time.

While I concur with Deputies opposite on the need for marketing, this is a task for the mid-west region. It is being done by Tourism Ireland and Shannon Airport. Shannon Airport Authority, for instance, is actively promoting the customs and border patrol, not only for commercial flights but also for the private jets to which many Deputies referred. It is a question of getting up and going.

A number of Deputies referred to a promise to provide €53 million for marketing Shannon Airport and the mid-west region. No such promise was made.

The Government commissioned the report.

A report was commissioned on marketing and other matters.

It was a good report.

The report sought €53 million for the marketing of the mid-west region. As this sum exceeds the entire annual budget of Tourism Ireland, it was not realistic and was never promised. The former Minister for Transport, the late Séamus Brennan, and I succeeded in securing special earmark funding of €4.5 million for the region as an exceptional measure. This funding is being spent at present. The Shannon and mid-west region is the only region with a specific, targeted tourism campaign, known as Discover Ireland's Wonderful West. I launched the campaign on a visit to the United States last year and, as some of the Deputies opposite noted, it is working well.

A number of Deputies raised the issue of cargo preclearance. The agreement does not provide for this form of preclearance. The United States authorities were anxious to proceed with preclearance for passengers and private jets. In our discussions with the US authorities, my officials and I raised the possibility of introducing a cargo preclearance facility at every available opportunity. For example, I raised it at my meeting yesterday and at the meeting I had with Secretary Chertoff when we signed the deal. The United States authorities have not by any means rejected the cargo preclearance proposal. Yesterday, we received further confirmation that they first wish to see how the new preclearance facility works. Once that has bedded down, we will be able to raise the issue of cargo preclearance.

While I intend to continue to pursue the issue of cargo preclearance and concur with Deputies opposite that such a facility could offer significant opportunities to establish a logistics hub at Shannon Airport, having raised the possibility with the United States authorities on a number of occasions, I believe the best course of action is to ensure the preclearance facility works and the reopening of the market in September is successful. If everything runs smoothly, it will create confidence and we will, I hope, be in a position to push an open door on the issue of cargo preclearance.

While I do not wish to add a note of acrimony to what has been a constructive debate, a number of political points were made on the famous departure tax of €10. According to some Deputies, the tax is causing devastation across Europe, the United States and the world.

It was implemented at the wrong time.

I fail to understand how a departure tax in Ireland could have resulted in reductions in the number of passengers using airports across Europe. Some of the Deputies opposite noted that Belgium and the Netherlands decided to abandon similar taxes. However, the figures show that the rate of decline in passenger numbers in Belgium and the Netherlands is greater than in Ireland.

That is because Irish people have no other means of travel.

We are an island nation.

If Deputies wish to make statements on the issue, they should at least consult the relevant figures. Data from the International Air Transport Association on passenger numbers show that the decline is a result of the global recession.

The Minister is under the thumb of the Department of Finance.

Ireland did not impose a departure tax across the world.

He should stand up for his Department.

We have heard nonsense, plain and simple, about this issue.

Why impose a departure tax when passenger numbers are falling?

If we were to abandon the departure tax, as proposed by Fine Gael and the Labour Party, it would result in a loss of income or increased charges of approximately €200 million. Will the Deputies opposite tell me where we would generate such a sum in the event that we chose to forego revenue from the departure tax? It is easy to call on me to abolish it, and I would be more than willing to do so if the tax could be avoided.

The Minister should publish a cost-benefit analysis of the measure.

None of the Deputies opposite has proposed cuts to compensate for abolishing the departure tax. They cannot have it both ways.

The Minister would not accept any suggestion made on this side.

This is the cutback Government.

The problem with the Deputy is he does not want to cut anything. He wants to create the impression that measures can be set aside and refuses to face up to reality.

The Government will be cut back at the next general election.

I would like to be constructive. Deputy Broughan asked whether it is possible to change the designation of space. This can be done formally. The diplomatic notes are standard notes which must be exchanged when an international agreement is made. There is no delay in this regard.

The State Airports Act was suspended following requests from the airports concerned arising from the current financial circumstances.

Will the Minister bring back Aer Rianta?

The agreement allows either party to request a review at any time. Redress is provided for in Irish law but that does not preclude passengers from also pursuing actions in the US. Deputies raised other issues which we may address on Committee Stage.

As it now 9.30 p.m., I am obliged to put the question: "That the Bill be now read a second time."

Question put and agreed to.