Waterford Airport has been without any commercial flights since mid-2016. I know the Minister is very familiar with this matter. The lack of international and national connections is a huge challenge. Extending the runway is crucial for the viability of Waterford Airport in the long term and in the context of any commercial future for the airport. Right now, Waterford's runway is only capable of handling smaller, turboprop aircraft, which are diminishing in numbers and struggling to retain their place in a highly competitive marketplace. The airport's board says a longer, wider runway would allow the hub to cater for more commonly used aircraft such as the Boeing 737, favoured by Ryanair, and the Airbus A320, the most common plane in the Aer Lingus fleet. The future of Waterford Airport has been hanging in the balance since June 2016, when the Belgian parent of the VLM airline went bankrupt, bringing an abrupt end to its only scheduled services to London Luton Airport. Waterford Airport currently hosts an Irish Coast Guard helicopter and is available for use by private jets.
The development of the runway extension at Waterford Airport is key to the region so that viable routes can be explored. I accept that the aviation industry is extremely tough and the airport has seen its fair share of setbacks in recent years. However, the delivery of funding to pay for the extension of the runway to allow larger aircraft use the airport, offering longer distance services to mainland Europe, would ensure the future of the airport and secure the many local jobs that are dependent on it being fully operational.
The North Quays in Waterford is the site of a proposed €350 million regeneration project which can only be described as a game-changer for Waterford. The south east needs a regional city of consequence and that city must be Waterford. A viable working airport is crucial to strengthen the city and the region. Waterford could act as a release valve for the overcrowding in Dublin, and it could act as a counterbalance to the capital in the context of issues such as overheating, rehousing, transport congestion and education.
I acknowledge that on foot of requests made by the airport and the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, and to ensure there was no disruption to the coast guard's search and rescue service, the Minister sanctioned the provision of €750,000 in grant funding to the airport last year. Two payments of €375,000 were made to the airport in January and December. These were exceptional payments and were provided to allow time for appropriate consideration of the issues arising at Waterford Airport. I submitted a parliamentary question on the matter last October and welcomed the reply that the Minister had brought to Cabinet an independent report on the extension of Waterford Airport runway. This was a very positive move. I am also pleased that submissions from Waterford Airport, Waterford City and County Council and local private investors were included in the review by Ernst & Young, EY, commissioned by the Minister. A planning application has been made for an extension to the runway. The current length of 1,400 m would be extended to 2,200 m and the width would be increased from 30 m to 45 m. This runway extension is vital to secure the future of Waterford Airport.