We now move to No. 7, statement by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and questions and answers on Covid-19 as it relates to the aviation sector. We will go to the Minister first. He is welcome. He has ten minutes for his opening address.
Covid-19 (Transport, Tourism and Sport): Statements
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to address the House on the aviation sector. While there are a number of structures through which my Department engages with industry stakeholders on a collective basis, I am acutely conscious that today's unprecedented challenges require that all options be considered and that we be open to novel approaches. For that reason, I am proposing to establish a task force for aviation recovery, which will be challenged with developing and advising on the framework for restarting aviation. I will appoint key stakeholders from the industry to this task force within the next week and will ask it to report back to me within four weeks with a plan ready to relaunch the aviation industry in Ireland. As an island nation, we must ensure that we staunchly fight for and protect our connectivity.
The Covid-19 crisis has brought new challenges in varying degrees to practically all sectors of our society and economy. We are all living and, in many cases, working in a manner that would have been unimaginable a mere three months ago. The crisis continues to have profound impacts on our society and devastating financial implications for the world economy, the Irish economy and the aviation and tourism industries at home and abroad.
The aviation industry is one of the most affected by the global pandemic. In Europe, air traffic movements fell to as low as 10% of the levels in the comparable period last year and were mainly buoyed up by cargo flights.
Passenger traffic has fallen to a trickle and stands at approximately 1% of what might be expected. Various businesses right through the aviation value chain, with the sole exception of dedicated cargo operators, have experienced a severe depletion of revenue and are facing various degrees of financial challenge. In an industry that has always been cyclical in nature and highly susceptible to external shock, the scale of setback now being experienced is unprecedented. Aircraft have never before been grounded in the way we are seeing. The future remains highly uncertain and because of the inevitable employment impact, the human cost will be high.
Ireland has historically had a huge dependence on aviation. As an island economy built largely on international trade and foreign direct investment, aviation is the lifeline that connects us to the global economy. We do not have the advantage of international road and rail connections that predominate for other countries to support the international movement of people for business, tourism or social purposes. The process of economic recovery as we emerge from this crisis will depend on the recovery of the aviation sector. Throughout the industry, the collapse in revenue streams has, with very limited exceptions, necessitated a swift and painful response. The main airlines serving Ireland and the airports have applied major pay cuts and laid off staff. While some companies were, at the outset of the crisis, in a very strong financial position in comparison with industry peers, none is immune from the need to reduce costs and restructure business. We have all heard the public announcements about reduced employment. There is a broad consensus that the recovery of the industry will take time. While there were hopes at earlier stages in the crisis that next year might see a return to business as usual, there is an increasing consensus that the recovery will be slow, with some predicting that 2019 levels of traffic will not be achieved again until 2023.
The Government has already announced a suite of measures to help mitigate the effects of the crisis on our citizens and businesses. These include the temporary wage subsidy scheme, the pandemic unemployment benefit, a three-month commercial rates waiver, the pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund for medium and large enterprises, a credit guarantee scheme to support lending to SMEs and the warehousing of tax liabilities for a defined period. Airports and airlines have been able to avail of those measures to help to constrain escalating losses. Some have taken difficult decisions to lay off staff on a temporary basis. These staff can and are availing of the Covid-19 unemployment payment. Most are also availing of support under the Government's Covid-19 temporary wage subsidy scheme.
State airports are continuing to facilitate airline services for cargo and limited numbers of passengers. Regional airports such as Donegal and Kerry are also remaining open to facilitate the Government-funded PSO service between those airports and Dublin. These services allow Donegal and Kerry to maintain a basic level of operations and safeguard connectivity. As well as supporting essential travel, they also provide support to air medical and rescue services. Unfortunately, Ireland West Airport Knock has had to close down its operations entirely on a temporary basis.
In line with recent announcements by other aviation businesses regarding cost-reduction measures, the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, announced last week that in the context of expected significantly reduced passenger traffic for several years, the company has no choice but to right-size the business to match the number of passengers that are likely to use Cork and Dublin airports in the medium term. To achieve this, a number of options are being considered. These include a voluntary severance scheme. Shannon Group has kept the airport open to facilitate cargo operations, essential passenger travel, emergency flights, repatriations and diversions. The management has taken difficult decisions to reduce costs including temporary lay offs, reduced working hours, the closure of all Shannon heritage tourist attractions and reduced opening hours at the airport. The key airlines serving Ireland, Ryanair and Aer Lingus, have publicly announced some of the measures they are taking to tackle costs. I am acutely aware that these airlines are particularly critical to the Irish economy.
The Government's priority in response to the Covid crisis, and rightly so, has been to save lives. We all know well the measures taken and indeed, it is only through our collective efforts that we have avoided far worse outcomes.
The measures adopted for this purpose place a huge constraint on aviation movements. At present, the travel guidance issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recommends that only essential international travel be undertaken. In addition, the self-isolation obligation is recommended for persons arriving by air with limited exceptions. In combination, these factors mean that both outbound and inbound travel for a business, social or tourism purpose is heavily restricted. This is, of course, reflected in the actual numbers travelling.
The Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business does not set out any timeframe for the resumption of aviation nor is there any clear definition of the conditions that need to be achieved to allow such a resumption on an unrestricted basis. As such, I am concerned that the industry has no certainty when business might regrow and this, in itself, is a significant destabilising influence. The recovery of aviation depends on a number of factors, including the lifting of constraints on border movements and the establishment of new arrangements to protect the health of passengers in the course of aviation journeys.
Fortunately, there is European guidance in respect of both of these issues. I will outline the position on each in turn. The European Commission issued a communication on 13 May setting out guidance and recommendations relating to the travel and tourism sectors that envisage a gradual, phased, co-ordinated and proportionate easing of border controls and travel restrictions across the EU. The guidance suggests the criteria that should be applied to the removal of restrictions on border movements. The criteria include epidemiological conditions in the country or countries concerned, the Covid containment measures and the economic and social considerations. We are beginning the process of considering how these criteria might be best applied in an Irish context. Of course, public health considerations must predominate and we cannot take actions that potentially undermine the good work we have done in bringing Covid-19 under control. On 20 May, guidelines were adopted by the European Aviation Safety Agency, in conjunction with the European Centre for Disease Control and Surveillance, for the management of air passengers and aviation personnel in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The guidelines seek to promote health and constrain the likelihood of virus transmission in the course of aviation journeys. The guidelines include measures such as increased sanitation with regard to both aircraft and airports, the implementation of physical distancing where possible and the wearing of medical-grade face coverings by passengers and staff. Air passengers will have a responsibility to adapt to new behaviours and new practices. In the measures to respond to the crisis so far, we have seen that people are very willing in this regard.
With the permission of the Ceann Comhairle and of the Minister, as on the previous occasion, could my questions be logged and responded to in writing because it will save time and use our time here most efficiently?
It is certainly timely that we are having this debate. As we know, aviation is critical to the economy. In some reports, Dublin Airport and our airports generally are responsible for up to €12 billion to our economy in terms of direct jobs in aviation, suppliers and indeed the enabling of tourism and aspects of our corporate world. There are many jobs provided directly - 130,000 according to the DAA - and, as we know, in terms of tourism there are 260,000 jobs. That is not to mention the corporate contribution made through aviation in this country. The aviation industry is, therefore, vital.
The Minister covered the many challenges faced by our industries at present. We have seen the temporary lay-offs, the closure of Ireland West Airport Knock and the issues in Ryanair, Aer Lingus and smaller airlines like Stobart Air and CityJet, so none of us is unaware of the extreme challenges facing this sector. I must say that I am very concerned. The Minister highlighted the uncertainty that will continue to affect this industry.
Our actions as a State are adding to that uncertainty. I pay tribute to the airlines for their assistance through this crisis, including the measures they have introduced thus far for the few people who essentially have to travel and in regard to the provision of personal protective equipment, PPE. In regard to the proposed task force to which later this week stakeholders will be appointed, presumably those stakeholders are the same people we have been hearing from for months now in terms of getting ready. To kick them out for four weeks frankly is nothing more than kicking the can down the road. The Minister will be aware that Italy lifted its ban today. He will have noted that the European Aviation Safety Agency and the European Centre for Disease Control guidelines, which the Minister referenced, have led to the announcement by Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and others of specific dates to reopen. As I said, some reopened today and others are set to reopen on 8 June or 18 June in particular, with Spain the outlier of those which have provided certainty setting that date at 1 July.
The guidelines are in place. Most of our European partners are making arrangements to reopen with the appropriate safety guidelines as designed by the European Centre for Disease Control and yet we are setting out the further uncertain message to people who we do not know and who will not know that date but we propose to set up a talk shop which will meet over five weeks to inform us what the stones on the road in the industry Europe-wide seem to know. This is not helpful. As I said, I do not wish to in the slightest undermine our public health advice but we must balance restriction with facts in terms of outcomes and risk and we are not doing that. The 14-day quarantine, based on its continuing for an uncertain period, will mean, in effect, no aviation, which is not acceptable. We need to make haste about our plans. I am sure the stakeholders could be assembled in a matter of hours. I am sure a day could see them come up with guidelines for our safe progression to the use of aviation in the way we need to assist our economy. I appeal to the Minister to bring forward those plans without delay.
As I said, it is unacceptable that it is proposed to kick out the uncertainty which the Minister undermined for a further five weeks. We are all reasonably proud of the great achievements we have had in containing this virus thus far and in flattening the curve. Nobody wishes to jeopardise that but to follow the course outlined by the Minister is to stick our heads in the sand. It is dealing with the issue on the never never, at which time Mr. Ross may not be the Minister. Why not show the leadership that is required, be pioneering and assemble the stakeholders in a matter of hours, take a decision in a matter of days and provide the certainty that it is within the power of the Minister to provide?
I would appreciate if the Minister could respond to my questions in writing in the interests of efficiency.
I raised the issue of Shannon Airport with the Minister in the House approximately three weeks ago. Others have raised it in the intervening period. I agree that the establishment of a task force at this late stage will only serve to drag out the process. What is the Minister or his departmental officials doing? What is it that they do not know that a task force can tell them? We know that the economy is falling of a cliff and that airport business has fallen off a cliff. These businesses, workers and their families need certainty. The local economy in Limerick and in the mid west need certainty and we need to have connectivity. We need a plan in regard to the funding of our airports to keep them functioning into the future. It is incumbent on me as a Deputy representative of Limerick to advocate for this. It is vital to the mid-west region that Shannon Airport is maintained to international standards in terms of runway capacity, passenger and baggage handling capacity and pre-clearance facilities. We need this for our business and connectivity and for tourism and balanced regional development, which is important but has been neglected for years. I will not pretend that all was well at Shannon Airport pre-Covid-19.
It was not, because the separation of Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority was far from the spectacular success which was sold to us. The business case and numbers which were predicted did not materialise. It is regrettable that the people who advocated against it, including some within Fianna Fáil and SIPTU, for example, were drowned out and not listened to. Local authorities and chambers of commerce became experts on aviation, and we can now see that the passenger market share for Shannon Airport has fallen in comparison with Dublin Airport and others. The mooted 2.5 million passengers who were going to come through Shannon Airport simply never materialised. We need some blunt honesty on this issue and we need a proper look back and review as to why that did not happen.
The Minister also mentioned Shannon Heritage, which is part of the Shannon Group. It operates a number of sites, maybe 14 or 15 between the mid-west, Galway and Dublin, but some of them are only going to open for a two-month period. That is not good enough. We need those sites to stay open for far longer to allow even domestic tourism, which we are hoping to spur on.
I would like the Minister to address what he is going to do to secure the future and viability of Shannon Airport. Has he engaged with the workers and stakeholders around Shannon Airport? They need to know what is going on. Has he engaged with the aircraft leasing industry? Almost 60% of international aircraft leasing is managed out of Ireland and many workers are involved in that. Has the Minister engaged with the airlines, Ryanair and Aer Lingus in particular? There are 100 Aer Lingus staff based out of Shannon Airport, so that needs to be done. I want to impress on the Minister that the Shannon region, including Limerick, which I represent, and the mid-west does not want to be disadvantaged. We need certainty that we will not be left behind in the Government's approach to securing the future viability of Shannon Airport.
I thank the Business Committee for facilitating this session, which I requested. Aviation is the sector most exposed to the Covid pandemic. It has been utterly ravaged. It took the sector 18 months to recover from the 9/11 attacks and it is now anticipated that it could take three to five years for the sector to recover from the current health and economic crises. For this reason, I implore the Minister to set up the aviation task force urgently. If we wait until the late autumn to introduce supports for aviation, airlines, airports and the countless spin-off industries, it will be too late. The sector is on its knees and it needs an urgent adrenaline shot.
Yesterday, I spent three hours in Shannon Airport meeting workers who have lost or are about to lose their jobs. I discovered that of the 1,600 Aer Lingus cabin crew, those at Shannon Airport are in the top 100 in terms of seniority ranking within the organisation. Despite years of loyal service to Aer Lingus, they were told via a video from management that they would be laid off. I find that utterly appalling. This afternoon they got a letter confirming that. In announcing staff lay-offs, it appears that Aer Lingus did not follow the long-established HR procedure of last in, first out. New staff taken on by the company in Dublin and Cork last winter will retain their jobs while those who have given more than 30 years of loyal service to Aer Lingus are being told bye-bye. The Aer Lingus staff I spoke to are currently taking home about 40% of their regular salary. They understood from management that they would receive 50% of their salary, which would be topped up by the Government's wage subsidy scheme, but none of that has happened. The Government has to intervene in this fiasco. It is not good enough to say that this is an independent company and that we cannot intervene. The Government has skin in the game. It has a lucrative PPE transit contract with Aer Lingus and practically all of Aer Lingus's wage bill is being paid by the Government.
I want Aer Lingus to offer clarity and a commitment to its future in Shannon. We need guarantees that flights to Heathrow and the US will recommence at the earliest opportunity. Shannon Airport is the driving force for the entire mid-west, and without it, there is no local economy. The outgoing Government did not provide any capital funding for Shannon Airport over its term at a time when the airport needed to market new routes and attract other routes. It had to invest and dig deep into its reserves to fund runway and baggage claim upgrades. This drought of funding came at a time when Waterford Airport, which had not had any flights for three years, was granted €5 million by the Minister. The final nails in the coffin of Shannon Airport have almost been hammered in, but with a claw hammer we can withdraw them and give the airport the boost it needs. We need to return to 24-7 operations. I was surprised to see cargo crates in Shannon Airport yesterday, which will be trucked out from the apron of the airport to Heathrow to fly to the US.
We are missing out on strategic opportunities.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine operates a pharmaceutical screening point in Shannon. I have heard it will be moved to Dublin with a loss of jobs, status and income for Shannon. The Minister and his colleague in agriculture should make a statement clarifying the situation.
I received a query today from a constituent who has booked over 20 flights for a family event at the end of this week. The family does not live within 5 km or 20 km of the airport. It is not an essential trip. The family has not been offered a voucher or refund because the flight has not been cancelled. What are we doing for customers? Yesterday, the Covid-19 committee was told that no non-essential travel is advised. In fact, the Department has advised against travel which is not essential. The law on refunds for airline customers has not changed, but if flights are still running and customers cannot fly, what can they do? People need clarity as airlines fly and countries reopen.
The new restart grant scheme has been welcomed by those in the travel industry. However, the cap on annual turnover for businesses is a cause for concern. The ceiling affects several sectors, in particular the travel industry which has been severely affected. While many travel agents may exceed the turnover cap due to the nature of their business, the margins are not reflected in turnover. It is also a sector that will be slower than most to recover. There is a strong case to be made for the ceiling cap to be reviewed and perhaps applied differently across different sectors. Could the Minister liaise with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation on this?
As we heard at the committee yesterday, exploring testing at our airports as a way of easing back into allowing travellers to come to this country presents problems. Are we considering adopting some kind of travel corridors where people from countries with low rates of Covid-19 are able to travel here without having isolation imposed on them? We cannot be left behind if other countries reopen and allow tourism to grow while we restrict growth here. The numbers in our airports have plummeted and as a small nation we will struggle to recoup those losses. We need to get the message out there that we are open for business and safe for visitors.
As our tourism sector has suffered massively, can bed and breakfast accommodation on a small scale offer isolation vacations as a way to combat the 14-day isolation imposition? Has this option been investigated? If other European countries impose a 14-day isolation and we make it mandatory to isolate for 14 days, can a traveller fly from one 14-day isolation period and be considered to be free of the virus, or must he or she go through 28 days of isolation? I ask this question in respect of those who are not pilots, air crew or medical staff and may have to return to Ireland for a certain period for their work and then return to another European country. Will the State issue isolation certificates for such workers to prove they have already completed a 14-day isolation period?
The Minister might respond in writing to Deputies because we do not have time for answers. Deputy Darren O'Rourke is sharing time with Deputies Maurice Quinlivan and Violet-Anne Wynne.
I will take seven minutes and Deputies Quinlivan and Wynne will take four minutes each. I welcome the announcement of the establishment of a task force for aviation recovery. It is very much needed and I ask that it be established and get through its work as quickly as possible. I recommend and encourage the Minister to include the unions representing workers, including Fórsa, SIPTU and IALPA, in the stakeholder forum. It is important that they are represented.
I acknowledge that in the Minister's opening statement he stated he is concerned that the industry has no certainty about when business might grow again. This is a significant destabilising influence in and of itself. I point out to the Minister that the aviation industry, citizens and customers of the industry look to him, as the Minister, and the Government for direction on this.
At the Covid-19 committee yesterday the Secretary General of the Department of Health said NPHET advised the Government on 3 April that the passenger locator form and 14-day period of self isolation should be mandatory. The Government ignored that advice. More than three weeks later, on 26 April, the passenger locator form was introduced but it was voluntary and not very well adhered to, as we know. Only on 28 May, a further five weeks later, was the form made mandatory.
On what basis did the Government ignore the NPHET advice on 3 April only to be half implemented on 28 May, a full eight weeks later?
I do not think there were any sinister reasons for that. I think there were different opinions about that. The advice was taken. It was the subject of some debate, but certainly there was never any intention, that I know of, to ignore it. My impression was that it was always going to actually come into existence, but the implementation of it took a certain amount of time for technical reasons. I do not think there was any intention at any stage that those locator forms should not come into existence.
There were certainly some difficulties about who would collect them - whether it would be the Garda; who would distribute them; and whether it would be at the point of departure or at the point of arrival. Those things certainly presented some debate, but there was no hidden hand saying we wanted to delay it for any reason. There were logistical reasons about the technicalities. There were international implications about giving the forms to people in one jurisdiction and whether the airline did it. I recall all that being part of a debate, but I do not recall anybody opposing it on any grounds. I think there was always an intention for NPHET's advice to be taken.
It was stated at the committee yesterday that the advice from NPHET was not adhered to or was not taken on board at that time anyway.
We were also told yesterday the Minister for Health is currently examining the possibility of a mandatory 14-day period of self-isolation. This is causing considerable confusion. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport referred to the industry as well as travellers, including would-be holiday makers, looking to the summer and beyond. For how long will the 14-day self-isolation period be in place? If someone has a family holiday booked in mid-July, will they be expected to self-isolate for 14 days? Can the Minister give us a month, a week, or a date when this restriction will be lifted?
I cannot, obviously. I would love to be able to do that. I cannot even give the actual date when it will be implemented at this stage. However, it is the intention to implement it. The only thing that could delay its implementation would be legal difficulties because obviously there are some legal and constitutional issues here. My guess is that it will continue for as long as the public health advice is that it should continue. I am sorry, but I do not know the answer to that question because it will be a NPHET issue and it will be up to it.
Is the Minister indicating that we will move to a stage when the 14-day period of self-isolation will be mandatory? Is that something the Government is planning to implement?
The intention is to do that.
Okay. I thank the Minister.
One of the public criticisms of the 14-day period of self-isolation is that somebody can come out of the airport and hop onto a bus to their final destination with the possible transmission of infection. It is exacerbated by the lack of face coverings on public transport. Anybody using public transport will be aware of that. Yesterday at the Covid-19 committee meeting, I asked Anne Graham of the NTA if she would insist on face coverings becoming mandatory for all passengers and drivers on public transport. She said it was not her decision, but it was a decision for the Minister and for Government. I ask the Minister the same question. Will he insist and when will he insist on face coverings being mandatory on public transport for drivers and passengers?
I will not insist because I cannot, obviously, but I can make some make recommendations about that to the Cabinet. I think that issue is being addressed. At the moment it is not mandatory but voluntary. If NPHET suggests that change, I have no doubt I will accept its recommendation, but it is a matter for it. If it is a public health issue and if it will save lives, I will certainly support that, but I would have to get that recommendation from NPHET.
I am going to make a short contribution and my colleague, Deputy Wynne, will then come in with a contribution. I have also some questions, and the Minister might answer them after Deputy Wynne speaks, if that is okay with the Minister.
I welcome the task force the Minister announced. It is a good move forward. As my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, said, we must ensure that the unions are involved. We are all supposed to be in this together, and if the unions are not involved, we are on a hiding to nothing. I do not have to tell the Minister that Shannon Airport is critical for infrastructure, the economy and for jobs, not only at the airport itself, where there are hundreds of people, but also the tens of thousands of people across the mid-west region of Limerick city, Clare, Tipperary, north Kerry - all over the place - who directly or indirectly depend on jobs in Shannon Airport. It is crucial that we do something. The economy has collapsed and we all understand the situation we are in. One of the first things I did when the lockdown was announced was to arrange a meeting of Sinn Féin Teachtaí with the CEO of Shannon Airport to express the major concerns we have. I know how difficult it can be as I worked in the travel industry for 19 years. It was traumatic after 9/11 for many businesses, and we are probably in a worse situation now than we were then.
Shannon Airport is vital, and what makes it especially vital is that we have connections across the world. We have direct connections to North America. I know from talking to people in businesses that have come here as foreign direct investment that one of the key reasons they came to Limerick and the Shannon region is the existence of those direct flights to North America. There is also a connection from Shannon to Heathrow Airport, which is an important hub where it is possible to get connections to almost anywhere across the globe.
I got an email from a staff member of Aer Lingus today who is, unfortunately, being laid off on 21 June. She does not know when or if she is going to be back. She was really upset that Shannon staff are to be laid off while those in Dublin and Cork are being retained. This sends out a signal that sends shock waves across the area. Is Aer Lingus going to abandon Shannon? We need clarification on that issue, whether that can be given by the Minister or Aer Lingus itself.
I am also concerned about what Shannon Heritage has announced. King John's Castle is the lead tourist attraction in Limerick city. It is closed because of the impact of Covid-19, and we all understand that. It was announced, however, that it will open on 20 July but will close on 30 August. That is only six weeks. It is simply unacceptable, and if the Minister knew Limerick, he would know the castle is located at one end of medieval Nicholas Street and on the other side is a cathedral. I refer to those sights not being open for longer. People will go to those areas over the Christmas period, if they are open. The street was let go for some years, but it has been redeveloped by Shannon Heritage and the council in recent years.
The Minister can answer my questions after Deputy Wynne has spoken. Has the Minister met the CEO of the Shannon Group regarding Shannon Airport? If he has, has he also met the workers and their unions? What specific plan does the Minister have for Shannon Airport? Has the Government agreed to intervene in Shannon Airport and to commit to funding it? What transport links to Shannon Airport does the Minister think should be examined? For instance, has the Minister met Transport for Ireland regarding the buses that go from Cork to Galway to ensure some of those services would now divert to Shannon Airport when it opens? Has the Minister had any contact with Shannon Heritage as to the announcement of the closure of attractions?
I have been inundated with concerns from constituents in Clare over the uncertainty that Shannon Airport faces and the associated implications for jobs right across our region in future. Jobs in the airport and nearby industrial estates are at risk, as are jobs in the tourism sector in Clare and across the mid-west. We know Shannon Airport acts as a vital gateway for tourism and business coming into Clare and the wider mid-west, and offers citizens great connectivity to swathes of the world. It clearly has a vital role to play as an engine for regional economic growth as we fight to recover from this Covid-19 crisis. We know the challenges faced by the airport are huge, financially and logistically, given the total shutdown of international flights and tourism as a whole on this island.
I highlighted these issues previously, and here I am again reiterating these same points. We know we are facing unprecedented times and that we have been battling a pandemic. That fact is appreciated. What is needed now is forward thinking and planning, backed up with commitments and direct action, and this needs to be done in a timely fashion.
In this context, I am extremely disappointed by the action of Aer Lingus in its recent announcement of the lay-off of staff at Shannon Airport.
Not for the first time, Aer Lingus has shown little regard for the needs of our region's community as a whole. All Deputies remember its ill-fated transfer of slots from Shannon Airport to Belfast in 2007. That proved to be a poor decision, just as Aer Lingus' current treatment of Shannon will come to be seen as another major error of judgment. However, Aer Lingus appeared happy to maintain two flights per day to Cork with an average of only 16 passengers. That fact has not been lost on the workers of Shannon Airport or the wider mid-west population. We need the routes back, with priority given to London Heathrow and possibly Birmingham. Those routes are essential as a support for much-needed investment, job creation and job retention in Shannon. We need this connectivity to be prioritised and we need the Minister to intervene.
I welcomed the announcement by the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, that he would meet Aer Lingus. However, I was dismayed that even after I and others highlighted the plight of Shannon Airport, the Minister, Deputy Ross, did not seek to roll up his sleeves and get directly involved. Workers in Shannon Airport are to be laid off from 21 June until 29 August and without any guarantee of being able to return. They know that this measure only applies to workers in Shannon Airport and not to staff in Dublin or Cork airports. The workers are asking why Shannon is being discriminated against.
There is a real fear that this might be the end of all Aer Lingus flights from Shannon. We already know all other transatlantic carriers that fly into Shannon have confirmed they will not return until next spring at the earliest. The future for Shannon Airport and the jobs that depend on its connectivity appears very bleak indeed. This situation cries out for direct ministerial intervention. Every possible option and-or solution must be examined.
It is important that the separation of Shannon Airport in 2012 be revisited. I remind the Minister that Sinn Féin did not support that separation in the first instance. The Government is currently supporting the company during this crisis to help it to retain staff. Many Aer Lingus employees will be in a very vulnerable financial situation if unilateral changes proceed and leave the remaining employees on 30% of their salary. I am calling on the Minister to intervene without further delay.
The Minister has one minute to address some of those questions.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions. Some of their questions will be very ably and appropriately addressed by the task force. That is one of the reasons it has been set up. It will voice the views of some of those whose voices are very often not heard as loudly as those of others. I take the Deputies' point on union involvement. It is a very appropriate suggestion because the unions are not necessarily included on all the delegations or at meetings with Ministers. It would be a good idea for unions or the workforce to have an input into the task force and I will ensure that happens.
On Aer Lingus, I share the pain of the workers and the Deputies. It is correct to state that Aer Lingus is an independent commercial body which I cannot direct to send a route here, there or anywhere. It makes those decisions. Although I may regret certain decisions it makes and may make national policy, I cannot direct an airline to put a route into a particular airport.
I ask the Minister to correspond with the Deputies on the outstanding questions.
Has the Minister met the CEO of Shannon Group?
I have not met her since the crisis began, but I am happy to so do. I have met her previously.
The Minister made one whistle-stop visit there in three years.
We now move to the Fine Gael speakers. Deputy Emer Higgins is sharing time with her colleagues.
As the Minister is aware, at this time of year, his Department would usually be gearing up to mark national bike week. It has been postponed as a result of Covid-19. In fact, today is World Bicycle Day. As such, I hope the Minister will indulge me by answering a quick question on cycling before I move to my question on air travel.
The Deputy is pushing the boundaries.
I promise to be very quick.
Unless she has a flying bike.
We are all changing our lifestyles as a result of the pandemic. One of the positive changes is the number of people who have taken up cycling. More than half a million adults are cycling at least once a week during this crisis compared with 220,000 at this time last year. Given the move to reduce carbon emissions and the fact that capacity on public transport services will be impacted by social distancing, it is clear that now is the time for the Government to support the movement to cycling. I ask the Minister to consider increasing the threshold for the cycle to work scheme from €1,000 to €1,500 to support cyclists and those considering taking up cycling.
I thank the Minister for approving the credit note scheme for travel agents who are struggling to secure refunds for customers and consumers. However, many families are still at risk of being out of pocket. For families who were planning to holiday abroad and who did not book through a travel agent, if their flight takes off or their ferry makes its voyage, they will not be refunded if they are not on board. If they are out of pocket, they will not be able to repurpose that money into a staycation. For many of them, that means sacrificing their family vacation this year, a year in which they truly need it. It also means sacrificing money that could be spent in local economies throughout Ireland. Will the Minister consider extending the credit note scheme for families who have booked their holiday independently but who do not travel abroad due to Covid-19?
With regard to the question on bicycles, I thank the Deputy for her contribution. Although it is not up to me, I will convey her wishes to the Minister for Finance.
On the second question, there is a certain misunderstanding about that scheme. It was introduced for two reasons. We must remember there is a guarantee of the money to the people who have actually had the cancellation. The credit notes are only offered by the travel agent and they do not have to be accepted by the customer. A customer can say, "No, I am going to go after the money", and if they seek to get the money, they will get it. On top of that, if the travel agent goes bust, and five have gone under recently, those credit notes are guaranteed by the Government. Therefore, the consumer will not lose that money in the long run, whatever happens.
This is not something that is done easily because the consumer is being asked to make a sacrifice. The reason it is being done is because the travel agents are in such an appalling cash flow situation, given the flights are flying but the travel agents are not getting a rebate. This means they would go under if they were to hand over the money to all those people who had cancelled. The idea is to make sure the travel agencies do not get into a really serious situation where a wave of travel agents go bust, and this seeks to ensure they can actually offer something to the consumer, who will be able to redeem it in the long run.
The Minister might get back to me in writing on it.
I have several quick questions for the Minister. With regard to Shannon Airport, I wrote to the CEO of Aer Lingus in the past week as there is a particular point in regard to cabin crew at Shannon who have been temporarily laid off. I have a copy of a letter sent to workers today which is very upsetting for them in that they are being allowed to stay on the wage subsidy scheme but they are being differentiated from their colleagues in Cork and Dublin. I have sent a copy of the letter to the Minister. I ask that he would make a commitment to contact Aer Lingus with a view to it maintaining cabin crew at Shannon on the same basis as elsewhere. Second, I ask that the Minister would ensure that Shannon Airport is on the task force for aviation recovery along with the unions.
Third, the Coach Tourism and Transport Council, CTTC, comprises the bus operators. Will the Minister ensure that one of its members is on the tourism recovery task force? Will he commit to setting up a public transport recovery task force around that area? It is a very vulnerable industry.
I am not going to give the Deputy a pledge about going to Aer Lingus as I cannot do that. What I will do is address the matter with it and see what its interpretation of the situation is, and then take it from there.
The second question was about the task force for Shannon Airport. I think we can probably give the Deputy that promise.
My final question concerned the coach operators on the CTTC.
Will the Minister look to set up a specific public transport recovery task force?
I will communicate with the Deputy about that.
I thank the Minister.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this debate at my request last week. A lot has been said and we are more or less wrapping up this section. I join my colleague, Deputy Kieran O'Donnell, on the situation with Aer Lingus in Shannon Airport. It is vital that the Shannon to Heathrow route is restored at the earliest opportunity. Shannon Airport is being dealt with differently from Cork, Dublin and Belfast. It is the only airport that does not have a direct connection to a hub. Shannon Airport services the mid-west and west. It is imperative that the Minister with responsibility for transport intervenes on this basis.
It seems 21 June is a key date. It is the date the temporary wage subsidy scheme will end. We have been told, and I have been informed, this vital scheme is being extended. On this basis I ask the Minister to intervene, speak to Aer Lingus and encourage it to keep in employment those loyal workers who have served Aer Lingus and the region so well over the years. It is vital that the Minister also asks Aer Lingus to make a statement on the base it has in Shannon, including the 90 cabin crew and 60 ground personnel. It is vital it gives this commitment.
When Aer Lingus was acquired by IAG in 2015, clear commitments were given and they need to be honoured. These are with regard to the Heathrow route and transportation to North America. That North American traffic is vital for Shannon. It is the lifeblood of tour operators, hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfast accommodation, pubs and clubs throughout the west coast of Ireland. It is important those flights start as soon as possible.
I welcome the fact a task force is in place, which the Minister announced this evening. It is a pity he did not announce it a bit earlier. That said, I welcome that representatives of Shannon Group will be on the task force. The Shannon Group and the 80 other aviation-related firms in the mid-west need an extension of the temporary wage subsidy scheme. I argue this must be extended to 2021. The Minister stated the recovery of aviation will be slow.
We also need to look at the 14 day mandatory isolation period. To get aviation and transport going, which are vital industries for our island nation, we need to look at this issue again and give guidance and security to aviation companies and airlines, their employees and the industries that depend on the connectivity. I ask the Minister to come back to me on some of these questions.
In the 30 seconds remaining.
The Deputy has asked five or six questions. I will answer him on several of them. Shannon is an area that has made representations to us on many issues, which have been covered by Deputies Carey, O'Donnell and others. We are very conscious of them and we will consider them in the light of every other plea that comes our way.
I am aware of the fact the Deputy has made representations on Aer Lingus and its flights to Shannon Airport. I cannot order it to put in a route and the Deputy knows this. The fact it has laid off so many people is something I deeply regret. It is something that is very difficult. In its contract there was a get-out clause for a pandemic and it is difficult to do anything about it that way. In the near future, it will be appropriate for me to convey the wishes of all of the Deputies in the House to Aer Lingus about Shannon Airport, what it has done and the wish to reinstall the route.
The Minister might correspond with the Deputies on the matters that have not been addressed. I call Deputy Joe O'Brien on behalf of the Green Party.
Aer Lingus's parent company, IAG, has informed investors of its €10 billion war chest to see it through the pandemic.
They are currently in talks to acquire additional airlines in Spain and Austria, all the while taking advantage of wage subsidy schemes in Ireland, England and Spain.
I wish to raise concerns about the actions of Aer Lingus management in the Dublin area in terms of restructuring plans. Up to and including today, unions have been looking for meetings with Aer Lingus management in Dublin and they have been refused. I would like to row in behind my colleagues and ask the Minister to write to them. I know he cannot direct them, but the State is helping Aer Lingus to a significant degree, as well as its employees, with the temporary wage subsidy scheme. The very least the Minister could do is write to them and ask them to engage with the unions in a much better fashion.
I am sure Michael O'Leary's potential bonus payment of €100 million never entered his head when he encouraged us all to pack in and mask up on the national airwaves last week, but what is the Minister's opinion of his statement that it is safe to fly, of his criticism of public health advice from Irish officials and his statement that if we put on masks, bump up the hygiene and limit contact, we will all be grand? What is the Minister's take on Mr. O'Leary's rather cavalier attitude towards public health?
Has the Minister been approached by airlines for financial assistance? If so, which ones? If any commitments are being made to financial assistance, I impress upon the Minister that they must involve provisos on emissions reductions, improvement in employment practices, and ensuring that no bonuses go to executives nor payments to shareholders in the near future.
I thank the Deputy. I cannot make judgments on statements such as those the Deputy makes in the House without hearing what I consider to be the full facts. I do not doubt what the Deputy is saying but I cannot say what Aer Lingus is doing is outrageous. I can write to it and convey to it what the Deputy has said. If there is a good case for the company meeting these people, sure, I will address it. I am just not familiar with the facts as they have come to the House this evening. I will certainly do that.
On Michael O'Leary saying it is safe to fly, I do not want to make any comment at all except to say that everybody in this space has a particular axe to grind and a particular interest. Michael O'Leary is in the business of selling seats on airplanes. That is his priority. As Minister and as a Government, we have to take note of the industry's views, of course, because it is so important for the connectivity to Ireland. However, we also have to take note of the health authorities' views. When I listen, as I think the Deputy does, to the airlines' spokesmen, we have to bear in mind where they are coming from. I appreciate it, and I know how important they are and what a great job they are doing for Ireland economically. I also have to bear in mind the fact that health considerations are paramount. We have to counter one with the other. I should say that nobody is getting their way all the time in this space. At the end of the day, the Government has recognised that the health of the nation is the most important factor that we have to consider when dealing with the Covid crisis.
On requests from airlines for financial assistance, an awful lot of them have made them. An awful lot of them are getting financial assistance and are using the wage subsidy scheme and the other props which the Government has provided. Some of them come with special pleading as well. Some of them are getting public service obligation, PSO, payments. All of those are continuing. We consider all pleas sympathetically because of the importance of the airline industry and the airports to the connectivity of this country.
I have three follow-up questions although I do not expect the Minister to have the answer to the first one. Do all aircraft landing in and leaving Ireland have high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters, which can block Covid from travelling? That may be a question for referral to the Irish Aviation Authority. What efforts if any is the Minister making to try to separate Ireland from the UK in terms of how our European partners are viewing us? They are viewing us as a single epidemiological unit, which obviously raises issues as the UK has a much worse record than us in terms of Covid-19.
Efforts need to be made there to distinguish us as a separate unit from the UK.
On safe routes and corridors, what explorations, if any, are happening to identify countries where travel to and from could be more viable or could be starter countries for us to open safe routes with?
Not all airlines have these HEPA filters. Ryanair and Aer Lingus do and I will send the Deputy the details on the other ones if he wants them.
On the point the Deputy made about the United Kingdom, one of the initiatives being taken by Europe is that when we open up, we would start by opening up with countries that have matching Covid-19 levels. We are conscious of the fact that we are at a similar level to other countries apart from the UK but we have very close ties with the UK in many other ways. It is our closest neighbour, the one with which we trade most closely and the one with which tourism ties and passenger travel are so close, so we have to bear that in mind as well.
I want to get clarification on trying to separate Ireland from the UK in terms of how our European partners view us. Is anything happening with that? I want to express concern about that.
I see no sign of anybody separating us from the UK in that way.
I want to express concern about the issue of HEPA filters. Does the Minister have any idea how many aircraft or what airlines do not have HEPA filters? He said Ryanair and Aer Lingus do but what percentage do not?
I do not know but I can let the Deputy know. I know Ryanair and Aer Lingus do and I can let the Deputy know what others do and do not.
I thank the Minister for facilitating this important debate tonight and for his opening statement. I listened to it and I read it and it gave me a sense that the gravity of the situation affecting the aviation sector is not lost on the Minister.
I welcome the setting up of a task force. It is a welcome and much-needed move. Will the Minister commit to the House tonight that the trade unions or their representatives, namely, SIPTU, the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association, IALPA, Fórsa and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, will be represented on that task force? It is a must, as Deputy Quinlivan said earlier.
I refer to the temporary wage subsidy scheme. It was welcome that the Government applied it and that the aviation sector turned it up. It was delivered in bad faith by a number of companies in the aviation sector. Does the Minister consider it regrettable now that conditionality was not placed on the temporary wage subsidy scheme in terms of the retention of jobs and in terms of the topping up of wages? To follow on from that question, will the Minister support the extension of the temporary wage subsidy scheme to the major aviation companies as well as companies such as Swissport, Gate Gourmet and OCS, which provide ground operations, catering and cleaning? Does the Minister support that scheme being extended until the end of this year? We have seen that even the most optimistic projections indicate that passenger numbers would only be back to 50% of 2019 levels in November and December, so this scheme would be much-needed for all of the rest of the year.
I will listen closely to the advice of the Minister for Finance on that and on the state of the public finances. My predisposition would be that there should be full support for those people who have lost their jobs and who are out of work. What way it is done does not particularly matter except that these people are supported. We will have to look at the public finances as well to see how long that can go on, and the situation there is not looking good. We had some fairly grim figures today, but all the same, I would look on that with regard to the advice we are getting from the Department of Finance as well.
On the question on trade union representation on the task force, I will ensure there is a representative of the workforce on that body. I will not give the Deputy a guarantee on what trade union that representative will come from or whether it will come from ICTU or from somewhere else, but I will ensure someone is there as a representative of the workforce.
I can give the Deputy that pledge today because that is extraordinarily important. Workforce representatives are a very important part of this great industry. They are suffering and their jobs should be protected as far as is possible.
I welcome that assurance and I am sure the trade union movement and the workers will as well.
Regarding connectivity, will the Minister give any commitment tonight to act, even to write a letter to the CEOs of the airport groups and the companies, to ensure that important routes such as Knock to Gatwick and Cork to Heathrow and the transatlantic routes involving Shannon, to name but a few, are retained? I know he does not have the power, but will he put the heavy weight of his office behind supporting these key routes? There are massive concerns. We have seen Knock's closure, which has been mentioned tonight. The workers in Shannon Airport and the region are petrified. It seems long-suffering Shannon has been going through a process of being continually denuded and attacked. This pandemic cannot be used as a method to provide a near fatal blow to Shannon Airport. It needs to be protected. The mid-west needs it vitally, so I ask that the Minister do everything in his power. I would welcome any comment he may have on this connectivity and these routes.
The Deputy has probably seen from what has been happening in recent weeks that there has been a concerted effort to keep all the airports open and running and ready for the recovery, the exception being Knock Airport. Knock Airport closed down but intends to reopen on, I think, 1 July. That decision was taken by the airport itself. My intention is, and I am sure my successor's intention will be, to keep open those routes which are not economically profitable but are socially necessary, such as those including Donegal and Kerry, and to keep them flying, and they are flying at the moment. There has been a reduction in the number of flights, but that is because the number of passengers has gone down to an absolutely minuscule number. There is a very good case for the regional airports and the routes the Deputy talks about, often for medical reasons, such as people having to fly to Dublin and back in the one day because they need treatment. They are therefore justified. I have every intention, as long as I am here, of seeing that those routes are kept open and that Knock Airport, which was closed, reopens and services the essential routes for society, even if there are no good economic, profitable or commercial reasons for it to function.
I ask also that the Minister write to senior management in the two major airlines, for two separate reasons. The way in which Aer Lingus communicates with its staff and their unions has been very poor. The method of rather dour, foreboding video messages to staff - I am not sure whether the Minister has seen them - has just added to the overall sense of uncertainty, unease and despair in the workforce. This method of communication is not helpful and needs to be nipped in the bud, so I ask the Minister to write to the chief executive of Aer Lingus about that. I have done so.
My colleague, Deputy Joe O'Brien, referred to Michael O'Leary of Ryanair. Michael O'Leary has been indulged for far too long in this country - not by me but by many - as being this crown prince of capitalism, with Ryanair being this big economic success story. He has done this by trampling over the rights of workers, trade unions and indeed customers down through the years. We have all been in company where we have heard that if Michael O'Leary was in charge of the country, everything would be grand. Last week, however, his comments that flying is safe, that we should just mask up, get on an aeroplane and get on with it, flouted every interpretation of public health advice and showed once and for all, without any veil, what he truly is in his placing of profit above all else. It is absolutely disgraceful.
Ryanair are consistently grouped with Aer Lingus, DAA and Shannon as being - and they are - a key driver of the aviation industry and a major actor in it. It is absolutely abhorrent that such a cavalier approach and such cavalier and dangerous language are being used at a time when people are still scared to go down to their local shops.
Moreover, people are frightened when they see people in great numbers on local beaches or in local parks. To hear someone who has such agency and power in this State come out with such an attitude and with such comments is deeply unhelpful. It is important that a letter goes from the Minister's office in his name on behalf of the Government to Mr. O'Leary to indicate that will not be tolerated in the teeth of this pandemic. I will leave it there.
I would like to say I will not be sending that letter. The Deputy is perfectly entitled to his view on Michael O'Leary; I do not share his view. I do not agree with everything he does, of course, but I believe his contribution to connectivity in this country is without parallel. While he certainly says things to the Government, to me and to my Department that are not always complimentary and he disapproves of much of the way we have approached this particular problem, it is appropriate and should be acknowledged in this House that he has done a great deal for connectivity in this country and has given an enormous amount of employment. There is a balance to be drawn here and I think it is appropriate for that to be done.
The balance has well and truly been in his favour during the past two decades. It has tiptoed the opposite way and I think it is now appropriate for the Minister and his office to respond. The Minister has said he will not do it. He is entitled to take that position but I believe the balance has tipped the other way and those comments are absolutely disgraceful.
It is welcome that a task force is to be set up for the recovery of this particular sector. It is probably one of the most exposed sectors in terms of the impact of Covid-19. I welcome the fact that a representative from the trade unions will be included but there is a wide range of opinion within trade unions. It is wildly different for a person who is an airline pilot represented by the Irish Air Line Pilots Association as opposed to someone who is a baggage handler. It will be important for the total views of the trade union movement to be captured in the context of this task force.
It is terrible to read some of the emails we are receiving from people who have got news that their jobs are lost or who are now on seriously reduced salaries but who must manage the commitments they have. There is a wide range of opinion, including people who have views on the 14-day isolation period. The views are right across the spectrum.
The importance of an airport to a region is great indeed. In the Shannon region, we can count the cost of the airport and keeping operations going there. The region benefits greatly from it. The Dublin region is far wider than the Dublin area in terms of from where the personnel who are employed in the airport come. As the Minister is aware, it is quite a wide footprint.
There is a concern that some of what is happening is both opportunistic and unreasonable. That is why it is really important that voices can be heard in the context of this task force.
As we all know, new regulations are in place and it is now mandatory to fill in the form at the airport but unless the Government is going to enforce the guidance for self-isolation, that it all it is, mere guidance. It is important that we know where people are in order that they can be tracked if someone proves positive; that is the point of it. However, if the self-isolation aspect is not enforced, we have to ask about its value. There were some follow-up calls to the first iteration of the form and many people did not follow through or did not answer calls and so on. That has to be closely monitored.
We saw the impact of people arriving from northern Italy early in the pandemic when that area was the epicentre in Europe. It was critical in the spread of the virus in Ireland.
This sector will be important in our management of the throughput of people. We cannot ignore the fact that we are an island. As we require connectivity, we need a recovery of the sector as soon as possible.
I share the concerns about who is making policy. I listened to the Minister's opening statement in which he referred to social distancing on airlines. We are being told by Ryanair or Mr. Michael O'Leary that, from 1 July, the intention is not to social distance but to require people to wear face masks. Does NPHET have a view on this? Are those the conditions under which flights will operate? If NPHET said it would be fine, then that would be an important component, but I have not heard NPHET say anything like that. The Minister will have to address this matter. Otherwise, policy is being made by the airline operator as opposed to with public health considerations in mind.
Many of us have views on the roadmap and whether it is overly rigid in some respects. Regarding this sector, some countries use a traffic light system for flights coming from areas that are not managing containment of the virus as well as they are themselves. We are in an unfortunate a position with our nearest neighbour, the UK, although we have to differentiate. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are managing the virus slightly differently but there is no doubt that its management in England is problematic. It certainly has not been as well managed as in Ireland. Other European countries and parts of the world have handled it differently and well.
Travel is a critical risk factor. While no one wants to restrict movement, the question we must ask is how to allow safe movement. If we can safely allow movement via a traffic light system, it should be considered.
Will the Minister address the issue of social distancing? He mentioned separation on planes. Will he reiterate the situation in that regard? We are being told that, from 1 July, Ryanair will see a scaled-up level of movement. Has health advice been sought on the number of people on flights and on the issue of people travelling from jurisdictions where there is a high incidence of the virus? People will be asked to self-isolate, but is it likely that a differentiator will be applied when following up with people who have come from areas that are highly infected?
I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy. I take her point about wider and differing views in the workforce. Obviously, we cannot have 20 representatives of various bodies. That would be a problem. However, we want to embrace as many as possible. It might be a good idea to have someone from ICTU or one of the largest unions there. We do not want to provoke some sort of inter-union jealously, but we do want the workforce to be seriously represented. I will ensure that it is.
That said, we do not want to provoke a civil war of any sort there either. We will do all that we possibly can to ensure that all those voices, particularly of those who have been put on a three-day week or who have lost their jobs, are represented and that they get feedback from the task force. It is very important that it has a wide footprint.
The Deputy asked a question about who makes the rules. There are some guidelines and protocols, to which I referred in my opening remarks, for when the airlines return to normal operations on 20 May. The EU has a big part to play and we should co-ordinate properly with Europe. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, jointly published guidance on measures to ensure the health and safety of air travellers and aviation personnel once airlines resume regular flight schedules, which is what the Deputy was referring to in her question. The Department, through the national facilitation committee, is co-ordinating the implementation of the guidelines by industry to promote health and virus control in aviation, with due regard to the maintenance of aviation safety and security standards. These guidelines seek to propose certain measures including increased sanitation measures in both aircraft and airports; the implementation of physical distancing, where possible-----
What does that mean?
-----providing protective screens, where possible, between airport staff and travellers; the wearing of medical grade face masks by passengers and staff; the provision of health declarations by passengers; measures to contact passengers for contact tracing purposes; and thermal screening of passengers.
Thank you Minister. We will move on to Deputy Bríd Smith.
I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. I want to raise a specific aspect of this crisis and its effect on aviation, namely, the present rush by Ryanair and Aer Lingus to cut wages, lay off staff and implement widespread redundancies. I am aware that much of this is not necessarily the responsibility of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport but it is the responsibility of the entire Cabinet. The speed and scale of the assault on workers in the aviation industry is particularly acute. This week, Aer Lingus told its Shannon-based crews that they would be temporarily laid off, while those in Dublin and Cork will see their rosters and pay reduced and 900 jobs will be cut. In mid-May, we were told that Ryanair will cut 250 jobs across its bases in Ireland, the UK and Europe as part of a wider threat to cut 3,000 jobs and to impose a 20% pay cut. Separately, the State company, DAA, will cut a potential 1,000 jobs in Dublin and Cork.
Obviously, one would have to be blind not to see that there has been a massive collapse in passenger travel but there are two points I wish to make in relation to these hugely profitable companies. First, in 2018, Aer Lingus reported an operating profit of €305 million and in 2019, an operating profit of €276 million, which is quite substantial. In 2019 Ryanair recorded an operating profit of €1 billion and the previous year its operating profit for the full year was €1.02 billion. Last year the DAA recorded a profit of €133 million. It seems, however, that eaten bread is soon forgotten by the CEOs, shareholders and directors of these companies, who are rushing headlong into throwing their workers on the scrapheap. As we know, these companies are claiming under the wage subsidy scheme for their workers so effectively, the State is meeting a sizeable proportion of their wage bills. Where is the responsibility of these companies to their workers, who generated these massive profits them over the years?
We also have a wider problem. We suspended the operation of the redundancy Acts until 10 August and the suspension could be extended beyond that date. Under Covid-19 emergency legislation, we suspended the right of laid-off workers to exercise their right to redundancy but nowhere did we think to balance the suspension of workers' rights with the suspension of the employer's right to make them redundant. I wish to quote the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Ms Regina Doherty, on the logic of doing this. She stated "If we did not extend the end date further, redundancies could occur in the very near future which will burden employers with further debt and have a serious impact on the potential for a business to recover." Ms Patricia King, who is right and with whom I totally agree, said that it is anomalous and unfair that workers are required to accept long periods of lay-off, while employers remain free to impose redundancy on employees.
Nowhere is that imbalance between workers and employers more obvious than in the aviation industry. We have seen 2,000 workers disgracefully dumped on the scrapheap by Debenhams and another company called Instant Upright that is attempting to do the same. This is why I am calling for a complete moratorium to be placed on employers' facility to dismiss workers on the grounds of redundancy during the period in which section 12 of the 1967 Act remains suspended. Just as workers' right to claim that redundancy has been suspended, so must the right of employers to dismiss workers be suspended during this crisis. What it effectively means is that Ryanair and others are using redundancy as an cost-cutting weapon during the current emergency legislation. It is facilitating employers in evading their responsibility. I repeat that these companies are hugely profitable. Will the Minister go to Cabinet and support the call from ICTU to introduce a moratorium on employers' creating redundancies during the Covid period?
The tale told by the Deputy is a very sad one.
It is disgraceful.
It is very sad and tragic for a large number of people; an extraordinary number of people. It involves the DAA, Ryanair, Aer Lingus, Stobart Air and all the airlines and airports. We are seeing lay-offs on a scale the Deputy and I have never seen before. We are also seeing a situation the likes of which we have never seen before and people are reacting to it in ways that are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, sometimes inhumane and sometimes very humane and sometimes very practical. I share the Deputy's sympathy. Nobody here has a monopoly on sympathy.
I am angry. I am not sympathetic.
I also share the Deputy's anger but she does not have a monopoly on anger. Just remember one thing that is really important. The revenue of these companies, which were monsters - one of which was a monstrously sized company while another was a State monopoly - has gone down by 99%.
A growing number of millionaires and billionaires and their cheerleaders in the media and the Dáil are calling for vital public health restrictions to be loosened more quickly so that the economy can fully re-open and they can resume making their profits. Leading the charge, unsurprisingly, has been Michael O'Leary of Ryanair, a notoriously bad employer, despite what the Minister might say. He has now graduated from bashing unions and driving down workers' pay and conditions to demanding an end to vital public health restrictions needed to protect us all from this pandemic. Two weeks ago, he took to the airwaves on both "Morning Ireland" and Newstalk to demand that social distancing be reduced from 2 m to 1 m. He attempted to dress this up with references to medical advice but anyone with an ounce of cop-on can see it is so that he can keep cramming people onto his planes. Dr. Gabriel Scally said in response that "I really don't think that Michael O'Leary is a good source of public health advice on the effectiveness or not of quarantine" and added "I think he might have a vested interest." I agree with Dr. Scally. In this Chamber a few weeks ago, the Minister admitted to me that the last time the airline industry made demands of him with regard to coronavirus, he bent the knee and wrote to the European Commission asking for the airline industry to be allowed to rip off the public by offering vouchers instead of cash refunds. Does the Minister support the public health advice from NPHET on maintaining 2 m social distance or has he been one of the Ministers clamouring behind closed doors for restrictions to be loosened in order that Michael O'Leary and the rest of his class can maximise their profits?
On the health advice, I have followed and will follow consistently on this issue.
The Minister is not pushing to reduce the 2 m distance to 1 m.
I have already said I have not ever in this area in any way departed from the health advice.
For the record, I take it the Minister agrees that there is substantial scientific weight behind the 2 m requirement. A review of over 200 scientific studies published in The Lancet two days ago states that transmission of viruses was lower with physical distancing of more than 1 m and that the evidence is clear that 2 m saves more lives than 1 m. The World Health Organization, WHO, is also clear on that point.
A number of Ministers have stated, as did the Taoiseach last week, that the vast majority of people would like to see us accelerate the plan. Would the Minister agree that there is no evidence for that? The Department of Health public opinion polls which are published on a weekly basis demonstrate that the vast majority of people believe that the current pace of loosening is either correct or too fast. In this week's survey, only 23% expressed the view that the pace of loosening restrictions is too low. Therefore, what we have is a manufactured public opinion demanding a loosening of restrictions which in reality is a relentless drumbeat from big business, amplified by the media and certain politicians, in particular Fianna Fáil, which demanded this debate on aviation following Michael O'Leary's media appearance. Matt Cooper in The Sunday Business Post gave the game away when he wrote that it does not matter that opinion polls suggest that the majority are happy with how things are being done, the needs of employers in both the public and private sectors must be given greater weight.
It is self-evident that the vast majority of people want to see the restrictions back to zero but they also want the conditions to be correct as well.
Job losses, cost-cutting, pay freezes, financial losses and crisis are the stark words that have been bouncing off the walls of this House as Minister after Minister has faced questions in recent weeks. The Government response, by and large, has been proactive. I trust the Government will also give practical support to the Irish aviation industry which landed in this crisis with a legacy of unresolved issues and now has little runway to help it rise out of it. The urgency of the current situation is unparalleled in modern times and finding solutions is crucial not only to the industry but to our tourism industry, to keeping our cargo supply chains open, to keeping our airports viable and to sustaining export trade with other countries.
I want to focus on the immediate future of workers in the industry and the situation that is unfolding at Shannon Airport. From the perspective of getting aircraft back in the air, aviation workers at all levels are calling for the 14-day quarantine period to be re-examined. Ireland is the only country, other than the UK, enforcing this strict rule and the latter is currently re-examining it. The science behind this mandatory quarantine in relation to travel should be explored in depth. Does the Minister agree that the 14-day quarantine requirement should be reviewed?
It was revealed last week that Aer Lingus will now move forward unilaterally with the restructuring of the company, which will include lay-offs and reduced terms and conditions for the staff who remain in their jobs. Since the onset of the Covid crisis, Aer Lingus has availed of the wage subsidy scheme and it has also benefited from a lucrative contract with the HSE to carry PPE from China. In addition, the airline reported operating profits of €276 million for 2019 and its parent company, IAG, is currently in talks to acquire airlines in Spain and Austria, while, at the same time, taking advantage of furlough schemes in Ireland, England and Spain. While it is not unreasonable to seek temporary changes within Aer Lingus during this pandemic, the concern is that staff terms and conditions have constantly been under revision. Cost-cutting is nothing new to Aer Lingus staff. This most recent decision, taken without consultation or communication with unions or staff, for non-voluntary redundancy or unilateral redundancy is yet another slap in the face for Aer Lingus employees. Throughout the years, many of these employees have seen and taken drastic cuts, not only in terms of pay freezes, but in alterations to their terms and conditions.
In recent years, however, when the highest profits in the history of Aer Lingus were announced, the pay and conditions were not restored and nor did the staff share in the monetary success, although agreement to do so was set by the Labour Court in October 2017.
The driving force and success of Aer Lingus lie not with its executives but with its unique staff. These staff members, who are scattered across Tipperary and the rest of the country, are currently living their lives under a black cloud of uncertainty. The Government is keeping them in their jobs, for which they are grateful, but their futures are vulnerable and uncertain. This vulnerability will have a ripple effect throughout the entire economy if significant job losses occur. These people are homeowners, supporters of local business and contributors to the local and national economy. We are talking about families - men and women who have built their lives around their jobs, struggled through the bad times with the promise of a brighter future, but who now face the prospect of shattered lives, hopes and aspirations.
Governments across Europe, including France, Spain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway, as well as American air carriers that compete with Aer Lingus, have provided sizeable financial support to their airlines with the strict condition that jobs are not lost and that there are no changes to the terms and conditions for employees. Why has the Irish Government not followed suit to protect the future of workers in the aviation industry?
While assistance is needed to protect the future of the airlines operating out of Ireland, the airlines should, in turn, play their part in securing the future of the industry as a whole. The new all-party Oireachtas Shannon Airport group has called on Aer Lingus to make a long-term commitment to Shannon Airport to restore confidence in the entire mid-west. This call comes in light of the airline’s decision to temporarily suspend its vital Shannon-Heathrow route and the fact that it is treating Shannon Airport differently from Dublin and Cork airports. My constituency of Tipperary forms part of the mid-west region. This region, along with many counties on the western side of Ireland, is dependent on the ease of connectivity to Britain afforded by the Shannon to Heathrow route. It provides swift entry for business and social purposes and quick access to connecting flights to worldwide destinations not served by Ireland.
The Shannon Group is a driver of economic growth. Independent research has proven that its activities support over 46,000 jobs in the region. Since the establishment of Shannon Group in 2014, it has undertaken a major €115 million investment programme and as a result, the regeneration work it is doing at Shannon free zone is breathing new life into the area, stimulating foreign direct investment and indigenous investment and creating jobs for our young people from around the region.
Prior to Covid-19, passenger traffic at Shannon Airport was set to take off this year. Commitments by Aer Lingus and Ryanair to new routes and increased frequency for existing routes were welcome and promising. Over the course of the last two months, like other airports all over the world, Shannon Airport has witnessed an almost total collapse in its airport traffic and revenues. The success of Shannon Airport and Shannon Group’s activities is critical for the economic well-being of businesses in the mid-west and all along the west coast. The airport is the very lifeblood of the region. The air services provided through Shannon Airport are essential to support Irish and international businesses located here, and its location at the heart of the Wild Atlantic Way makes it an important gateway for international visitors.
There are a number of initiatives that would greatly help Shannon Airport at this time, including funding to assist in securing strategic routes and, importantly in the context of the Covid crisis, restoring current routes. This funding would go to the airlines. Dedicated funding is also required to complete essential capital expenditure projects. These types of projects are currently funded by Shannon Group from its own resources. We also need a waiver from commercial rates for Shannon Airport and Shannon Heritage until some normal level of revenue and activity is restored and the continuation of the wage subsidy scheme for the aviation and tourism sectors severely impacted by the pandemic. Shannon Airport is at a critical juncture. Any new Government needs to secure the future of this vital service hub for the mid-west and we need to pursue the restoration of the Shannon-Heathrow route as a matter of urgency.
I thank Deputy Lowry for his contribution, which was very reasoned and moderate. What he voiced are the opinions I have heard all over the House for the past two hours. It is a plea for the workforce and an understanding of the extraordinary change which has been made to their lives so suddenly. That is something which all sides of the House share. It is matter of how we address something which is utterly unprecedented.
The special pleading which has been made for Shannon in the House today is very convincing, not just for strategic reasons but also because of the conditions and difficulties in which the workforce find themselves and because many people feel the airlines have behaved in a way that is lacking the sympathy which might have been expected. On the other side of that coin, we have to acknowledge that what we are facing is a lot of airports and airlines haemorrhaging money. If the situation went on and we had not taken the action that we did, some of them would be facing oblivion. If they were facing oblivion, the workforce would be in a worse situation because there would be no jobs for anybody.
We are trying to create a space where we provide those supports which I have already listed. Shannon Airport, which the Deputy mentioned, and other airports are using the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment benefit is going to people who have, unfortunately, been laid off. We have introduced possible three-month rates waivers, stabilisation recovery funds and all sorts of subsidies and supports for airlines and the people who have been badly affected. That is not a panacea and has not worked totally, but it has recognised the real difficulties in which people may find themselves.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is sharing time with Deputy Carol Nolan.
I am going to make sure I stop in time to give the Minister a chance to reply. The first issue I want to raise with him is very important. I have three specific points. With regard to people who want to do their driving test, I want the Minister to-----
Deputy, we are talking about aviation.
No. The Minister will allow me-----
This is about driving cars------
The Minister will allow me the opportunity to give him the chance to explain to the people who desperately want to know what is going to happen to people who need to sit their driving tests. People want to get a full licence. Nurses are going to work on the front line every day and have not seen their families for weeks or months. They are in an awful position whereby they have to get to work but do not have a full licence and cannot have anybody in a car with them. Can the Minister shine some light on this? A frightening number of people have contacted me about this, and I am only one person. I am sure everybody else is in the exact same position. Can the Minister provide some clarity on the issue?
With regard to aviation, I too have been contacted by many hardworking people who have lost their jobs or whose jobs are in jeopardy. The Minister referred to the medical advice and guidance we have been given. Nobody is saying we should throw that out of the window, and I am not saying that for one minute. However, can we have a balance between protecting people and not wasting the sacrifices that have been made, while trying to protect the jobs which are so important and on which thousands of people are relying?
I know the Minister will not blame me for raising with him the importance of sports capital grants. I know he will not blame me for saying that on the record of the Dáil because he, more than anybody else, should know how valuable it is to have those grants continue into the future. I would appreciate an answer on driving licences, in particular.
Are there any sports grants for the aviation sector?
I thank the Deputy for his contribution. He has a brass neck. The Ceann Comhairle was very generous to him also. I am very happy to answer the question on driving tests. I answered it the last time and I think I answered it when Deputy Michael Healy-Rae was in the House, but he is entitled to-----
He did not answer it clearly enough, I am afraid.
I will answer it again. I share the Deputy's sympathy for the people who cannot do their driving test at the moment. What he is saying is right but he is not providing a solution for me. The reason people are not doing their driving tests is a very good one. It is that to do so would be a danger to their health and the health of the people testing them. I will take the advice of NPHET on that particular issue. If at any stage it advises it is all right for driving testing to go ahead, I will obviously accept that advice and I will go to Cabinet and say I think that should happen. However, at the moment that is not on the early-opening list because people have to sit very closely beside each other for a very long period. It is a very unfortunate situation.
An alternative is often suggested by people taking the Deputy's point of view. As the Deputy does, I get many complaints about this every day. The alternative is obviously to let people out on the road without having taken their driving test, which is not acceptable. That is a safety issue and it would be absolutely unacceptable. I know some people say this should happen. It would be totally unacceptable to allow people who are not qualified to drive to go out on the road, do dangerous things and kill people. The answer to that is that I will keep this in mind. I will keep asking about it, but the advice is very strongly that it is not a priority.
I will not be the Minister when the sports capital grants are allocated. I will not be able to do anything for the Deputy. However, I will make a strong recommendation. I will leave a note on my desk for my successor to contact Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, saying when it comes to sports capital grants, he is the man who knows how to manage them.
I call Deputy Nolan. Now follow that.
I accept there are difficulties in the aviation sector. I wholeheartedly support the call for jobs to be strongly protected. Has any plan been drawn up based on the expected impact on the sector? Have any streams of funding been identified? It is vital for the local economies in the regions, not just in our cities, that the aviation sector is protected and supported.
On that note - it connects very well - obviously buses and coaches are needed to transport people to the airports. There is a connection. With that in mind, will the Minister commit to supporting the calls from the coach and bus sector for a reclassification of VAT status to harmonise the island's VAT system? The coach sector should have had a representative on the tourism recovery task force to ensure that voice is heard. Will the Minister support that proposal?
I wholeheartedly support the ongoing provision of the sports capital grants. They have been fantastic for our communities. I hope the Minister will add my name to his note, as well as that of Deputy Michael Healy-Rae.
We will have two names in there.
It is very important in Offaly; we want to keep our football going. We obviously do not want Kerry dominating in everything.
It would give the hurlers a chance as well.
The Rural Independents are very inventive in their use of the time.
We have to be.
They are very quick out of the traps. I am not sure what the Deputy's plea for the coach sector is.
I am calling for the reclassification of the VAT system. Apparently, the coach sector in the North of Ireland is at a competitive advantage. I have been inundated with calls from the bus and coach sector about this issue. They have spoken to me about the reclassification of VAT status to harmonise the island's VAT system.
Those operators feel it would be advantageous to the local economies, businesses and tourism.
I will pass on the Deputy's message. I have not considered that yet, but I will pass on the message and get a consideration of that issue. There was no particular reason those operators were not on the task force and we were not in any way trying to exclude them. The task force is very small and includes people who will represent them extraordinarily well. It includes representatives from Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland, the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation, ITIC, and many groups that will certainly represent the point of view of the operators. We could not possibly include every vested interest in the tourism industry or we would have a committee of 400 or 500 people. I think the bus and coach operators will, however, find people on the task force who will represent them very capably. There are also people from my Department on that task force who will be very happy to hear their points of view. They are not being excluded for any reason except that only some of the very significant and large stakeholders, such as hotels and others, are on it. There are niche elements that are not on it, many of them, but they will find a home there if they approach someone on the committee. There is no doubt about that. If they come to me directly, I will refer problems or representations, whatever they are, straight to the committee. There is no effort whatsoever to exclude them.
The other issue addressed by Deputy Nolan was jobs. One of the reasons for having a task force is so that the voiceless can be represented. I refer to those not normally represented on bodies like this. It normally tends to be chief executives and the big battalions exclusively. I would certainly include the chief executives and the powerhouses in the industry on that. We also want to see, however, people who are not particularly powerful and who are weakened by this crisis represented on the task force. That is what we intend to do, and I promise all the Deputies who have made representations about this issue today that they will be represented there, because as people they are equally important to the most powerful people in the country.
Deputy McNamara and I are sharing cúig nóiméad agus cúig nóiméad. While the Minister is writing love notes on his departure, he might include one for the 24,000 people in Galway who asked him to carry out a feasibility study on light rail. I am still awaiting an answer, so perhaps he will just do an extra little love note on that, and on reflection given the post-Covid conditions and the climate change challenges.
On this matter, I welcome the opportunity to speak and I welcome the task force. It is a little late in being set up, but I welcome it. I also welcome the confirmation from the Minister that there will be workers' representatives on it. That is extremely important, because all of us have been contacted by the workers in Shannon Airport, some of whom live in Galway. Various parts of letters have been read out, and the one that hit me the most, and I think Deputy Lowry referred to it as well, was one that referred to the driving force and the success of Aer Lingus not being entirely - and I would go stronger than that - the result of the executives but of its unique staff. The letter went on to state that the customer-facing front-line staff are renowned across the globe for their empathy, humour and kindness to passengers and much more besides.
The Minister stated no one has a monopoly on anger and sadness. That is certainly the case across every side of this House. The Government is in a unique position, however, and has a monopoly on legislation and policy. Policies shape the type of working conditions and society we have. The decision made in our name to sell off Aer Lingus in first place was problematic. We now have a situation where Shannon Airport has no planes going in or out, except for military planes, or civilian planes on contract to a government, coming down for refuelling. I might come back to that point in a minute.
It might be asked why I am mentioning Shannon Airport when I am from Galway. When the airport closed in Galway, however, one of the reasons given was that we had an airport just an hour down the road in Shannon and that it was vital for the region, not just for Clare, but also for Galway. It was one of the very strong reasons put forward. The Minister's task force, therefore, might look at the importance of balanced regional development.
I hope they can make it mean something. Shannon Airport is vital if we are seriously interested in balanced regional development.
The Minister was earlier asked whether any airline had approached him for help, as Lufthansa has done in Germany. By way of answer, he referred to the wage subsidy scheme, the PUP, and other measures. However, that did not answer the question asked of him. I will ask it again: did any airline approach him or the Government for specific help in the way that Lufthansa did?
Going back to my point on policy, the wage subsidy scheme and PUP have been put in place and Aer Lingus is availing of that in Shannon. What I understand from listening to the contributions - it is quite difficult to comprehend - is that the wages of the employees were reduced by 50% in the first place and, as such, when the company availed of the wage subsidy scheme, it only paid 50% of what it ought to have been paying. There was a gain on the back of the system. I fully agree with the decisions taken in respect of the scheme and PUP, but it is important that we reflect on them and ask what conditions are necessary. Germany has set great conditions on the help it will give to Lufthansa, including taking equity in the company. What has been done here? We have given out taxpayers money - absolutely correctly - to maintain the connection between employers and workers and to help employees who are out of work but from what I can see and as other Deputies have mentioned, no conditions whatsoever were set regarding the company, the profits it is making and the war chest it has for the acquisition of airlines in other countries while Shannon remains bare. The Minister will not have a chance to reply because I wish to give a full five minutes to my colleague.
On Shannon Airport, I understand that two aircraft touched down there at 6.24 this morning and at lunchtime to refuel on their way to I know not where. They were using the airport for the purpose they have always used it, that is, for the furtherance of American military might. It is odd that we are all talking today about racism in America and the deplorable actions of the American President, yet we facilitate him at Shannon Airport.
I echo what has been stated in respect of the necessity of balanced regional development. The lack of balanced regional development was very much a theme that emerged under the previous Government of which the Minister was a member. Before the entire economy went into a tailspin we saw significant inequality develop between the eastern seaboard and the rest of the country. There was an example of that at Shannon Airport when it lost not just passenger share, but passengers in absolute terms, while Dublin Airport powered ahead.
I do not know whether to welcome the fact that the Minister is setting up a task force because its outcome will very much be determined by its membership and its terms of reference. If he is going to appoint people to it along the lines of those who persuaded him that making Fingal County Council the noise regulator for Dublin Airport and that it could somehow be independent in that regard, I do not have much hope for it. If it is to be comprised of the people who persuaded him that a third terminal at Dublin Airport was a good idea while the terminals at Cork Airport and, to an even greater extent, Shannon Airport lay empty, and that a second runway at Dublin Airport was essential even though there is a second runway at Shannon Airport and the first runway is not utilised, much less the second, then I do not have much hope for it. However, I hope there are people in this country - and there are a multitude of people internationally - who could be appointed to the task force and made responsible for developing a balanced aviation policy that is good for the entire country and not just for Dublin. Residents of north County Dublin have had a second runway put in, the flights to which are literally going over their heads. Dublin Airport is actively trying to change its planning conditions to ensure flights can come in at night time over the heads of those residents, who do not want them, whereas Shannon was a 24-hour airport - it has temporarily stopped 24-hour operations. I urge that the task force ensure that is a temporary measure and that it will return to being a 24-hour airport.
Aer Lingus and Shannon Airport have had a particular relationship going back years and it has never been a comfortable one.
There has always been a suspicion at Shannon Airport that Aer Lingus's sole priority is Dublin Airport. Indeed, I sat in on a transport committee meeting when the sale of the State's 25% shareholding was being discussed in 2015, and Willie Walsh very much admitted that Dublin Airport was going to be its priority. In fairness, he did not mislead anybody; he said Dublin Airport would be the priority and Dublin Airport has been the priority of Aer Lingus.
I accept that the airline sector is in trouble everywhere, not just in Dublin, in Shannon or in Ireland. Aer Lingus is a private entity, as the Minister said. I noted his almost Freudian slip when he said the problem is that it is a private entity. It is amazing what a tenure in government can do to one's perspective on matters like that. Aer Lingus is now exclusively a private entity, which is because of decisions made by successive Governments. People who supported the sale of the 25% shareholding, including from my own county, are now crying crocodile tears, when this was the inevitable consequence. There are also people who did not support it at the time, because they never had to vote on it, but who are certainly members of a party that supported the sale of Ireland's shareholding in Aer Lingus which reduced it from 80% to 25% in 2006.
While I am not ideologically opposed to the privatisation of some companies, we are an island nation and we are uniquely dependent on our connectivity. It now appears that the sale of the State's shareholding in Aer Lingus was as strategically short-sighted as the sale of the State's shareholding in Eir, or Eircom as it was then. We have had all this brouhaha about developing a broadband infrastructure and whether it will be public or private. Of course, we have an appalling level of customer care from Eir for its existing customers, who are the majority of people in Ireland, because there is absolutely no State shareholding and very little control that the Government can exercise.
I ask the Minister, if he is setting up a task force, to make sure it is fair and it looks at fifth freedom rights, so that we do not have people flying from, say, Addis Ababa into Dublin and on to Los Angeles. The Government has complete control over fifth freedom rights, which are not covered by open skies. It could say such people need to go to Shannon Airport in circumstances where we need to limit the number of people congregating, perhaps unnecessarily, in Dublin Airport when Shannon Airport could desperately do with the traffic. I also ask him to ensure the task force looks at the possibility of testing not just passengers coming into the country but also, perhaps, passengers going out. We already have a big customs pre-clearance facility at Shannon Airport, just as we have a physically smaller one in Dublin Airport. It might be possible to persuade the federal authorities in North America to open up to European passengers who have already tested negative for Covid-19. It may become the gateway from Europe for passengers to North America. Shannon Airport needs a shot in the arm, particularly now there is no State connection and it is solely reliant on passenger numbers to determine whether or not Aer Lingus stays there. Sometimes one thinks that it is not just about passenger numbers and that when the airline has had to choose between a flight in Dublin and a flight in Shannon, it has always preferred Dublin.
We will conclude. The Minister might correspond with the two Deputies.
On a point of order, the Minister, Mr. Ross, raised an allegation that I had somehow misled the House in a previous debate, which I had not. Is this an appropriate time to deal with it?
It is not.
Thank you. I would, of course, say that I did not.