Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

School Transport

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

1. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport if his attention has been drawn to the funding shortfall at Meath Local Link, which has led to school bus transport from Ratoath to Navan being cancelled; and his plans to address the matter. [25882/20]

Children in Skreen have attended school in Navan for generations and they have been accommodated under the school transport scheme for years. Similar to many others around the country, they found their own solutions when they were left out of that scheme, such is its exclusionary nature. Families managed to work with Flexibus and TFI Local Link Louth, Meath, Fingal to get a bus on the road and share the cost. When the 50% rule was introduced with three days' notice, they were told that the National Transport Authority, NTA, does not handle school transport. How will the Minister intervene to facilitate these 33 children?

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in respect of public transport. The NTA has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally. The NTA also has national responsibility for integrated local and rural transport including management of the rural transport programme, which now operates under the Local Link brand. The school transport scheme comes under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, and is managed by Bus Éireann on her behalf.

My Department provides aggregate funding for Local Link services to the NTA, which, in turn, allocates the funding to the individual transport co-ordination units, TCUs, nationwide, also known as Local Link offices. The TCUs manage the day-to-day requests for and delivery of public transport services. TFI Local Link Louth, Meath, Fingal, that is, Flexibus, operates and delivers rural public transport services on behalf of the NTA in counties Louth and Meath and the Fingal area in north County Dublin.

The NTA has advised that Covid-19-related social distancing requirements have increased the costs on the existing service provided by Flexibus, about which the Deputy has inquired. As such, the company was not in a position to continue providing the service as previously without additional support or grant aid.

Under the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009, the definition of a "public bus passenger service" excludes the NTA from licensing or providing services for carrying children to or from school. Consequently, the NTA does not manage the delivery of dedicated school transport services.

Local Link services are for mainstream public transport services open to all. Dedicated school transport services continue to be funded by the Department of Education and Skills and operated by Bus Éireann, largely via a network of subcontractors. As such, the NTA has advised that it is not in a position to allocate resources to Flexibus for a school-specific service such as the one referred to by the Deputy.

The Government tells us all eligible children will be accommodated. That is a careful use of words, which hides the fact that thousands of children who would have been accommodated in previous years have been excluded from school transport scheme this year. Covid-19 is a factor, but the Government's complete failure to plan, prepare and deliver is a larger one. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, was consulted but the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, was not. That tells us everything we need to know.

This case is particular but it is not unique. The families tried to fund the service themselves this year. The bus company needed €50 per child per week, €80 for two children and €120 for three children. That was a significant expense, which families simply could not meet. It has caused chaos, turning daily schedules on their heads, cramming kids into cars and putting more cars on the road. Will the Minister instruct the NTA and Flexibus to reinstate funding for the service, or intervene with the Minister for Education and Skills and Bus Éireann?

The Deputy is correct that this is not the only example. It is a cruel and critical problem for every family affected. If I recall correctly, 20,000 students throughout the country are on bus services not provided by the Department of Education and Skills. Many of these services are in particular difficulty because of the 50% rule concerning capacity of bus services. The local Flexibus service is a brilliant company, but there is a clear difference between an operation of that type and a bus service run exclusively for a school and its students. That cannot be funded by the NTA. By definition, Local Link services are open to all and are not school-specific. If we changed the rules in this location, we would have to change them for the entire country, which would undermine the public Local Link services everywhere. It is unfortunate that the example the Deputy has raised is caught in the gap between a public bus service and an school service. There is no easy resolution to this, but the NTA will engage with Flexibus to see what steps are possible.

To ensure that as many Members as possible can comment, I will not allow Members or Ministers to exceed their time.

My apologies.

Replies I received from the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Norma Foley, confirmed that as of last Thursday, 97,644 tickets had been issued for primary and secondary school transport, not including transport for students with special educational needs. The comparable figure this time last year was 103,764. That is a difference of 6,120 children. That is a lot of children who have been left without a service by the fixed constraints of the school transport scheme. Of course, the 33 children in Skreen are not included in that 6,120. Neither are the hundreds in Leixlip, north Louth, north Wexford, Donegal or Mayo. I could go on.

Can the Minister confirm the real numbers? He referred to a figure of 20,000. Is that the number of students who have been excluded this year for these reasons? What solutions will he, his Department, the NTA, Bus Éireann, the Department of Education and Skills and the Government as a whole provide for these children?

Those 20,000 children have not been excluded. That was an historic reference to the number of children who were on private bus services not operated by the Department of Education and Skills. In most instances, these children travel longer distances than to the local school.

For that reason, they are not included within the scheme run by the Department of Education and Skills.

The Deputy referred to 6,000 fewer school transport tickets having been issued. That issue, which falls under the remit of the Department of Education and Skills, relates to parents having various views in terms of how they operate within the Covid pandemic period. Indeed, the situation is changing because the Department of Education and Skills is having to look at revising the number of buses that are available in order to meet the Department of Health recommendations regarding the 50% capacity limit. There will be further changes to the school bus system but I do not believe they will solve the local issue raised by the Deputy because the service in question falls outside the catchment of the Department of Education and Skills.

Taxi Regulations

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Transport if the demands of representative groups of taxi drivers will be agreed to, namely, to dissolve the taxi advisory committee and instead establish a national transport forum with strong representation from these representative groups, to extend the ten-year rule for replacing taxis to 12 years, to instigate an immediate moratorium on the issues of licence and to establish a licence buy-back scheme for taxi drivers wishing to exit the industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25883/20]

As I have repeatedly stated to the Minister and his predecessor in recent months, the clock is ticking on the dire situation faced by taxi drivers. They believe they have no choice but to organise another demonstration, to be held on 9 October, because of the failure of the Government to give commitments and assurances about supporting them through income subsidies, extending the ten-year replacement rule to 12 years, a moratorium on the issuing of licences, grants to cover ongoing costs, a buy-back scheme for those who wish to exit the industry and disbanding the taxi advisory committee. Will the Minister give those supports and commitments as requested?

I met delegates from four taxi representative groups the week before last. It was a useful and productive meeting at which I had an opportunity to hear about the impact of Covid-19 on the taxi industry and the representatives' proposals as to how the industry can best be supported through this difficult time. I undertook to meet representatives again in the near future once I had an opportunity to consider fully these issues with my Department and the NTA. I confirm that I intend following through on that commitment as soon as possible.

I have no plans to dissolve the advisory committee on small public service vehicles, sometimes known as the taxi advisory committee, at this time. This is because the committee has played an important role in advising my Department and the NTA on the issues facing the industry and on how to assist it through the pandemic and ensure its future sustainability. In July, following a request from my predecessor, the then Minister, Shane Ross, the committee submitted a report with several recommendations. Since then, my Department has worked with the committee to examine how these can be addressed. We have shared the report with other Departments and it has served as a useful basis for engagement to ensure that small public service vehicle, SPSV, operators, many of whom are self-employed, are able to access to the greatest extent possible the range of measures the Government has introduced to support businesses through these difficult circumstances.

The advisory committee, which was established under the Taxi Regulation Act 2013, enjoys a broad membership, with members representing driver interests, dispatch operators, passenger interests and official stakeholders such as local government and An Garda Síochána. This diversity of representation, combined with members' commitment to having a well-functioning and effective SPSV sector, is a real strength of the committee. My Department will continue to engage from time to time with stakeholder groups, including driver representative groups, but the advisory committee has been and will remain the central focus of engagement with the SPSV sector regarding issues affecting the sector. In addition, the NTA, as statutory regulator for the sector, will continue to engage with the industry and communicate regularly with individual SPSV operators regarding the impact of Covid.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I note that the issue of age limits for taxis is a matter for the industry regulator, that is, the NTA. I remind the House that the NTA has already extended age limits for vehicles that were due to reach the limit between March 2020 and the end of the year. This regulatory change by the NTA means that since the start of the pandemic no operator has needed to replace his or her vehicle due to vehicle age limits.

I understand the NTA will continue to monitor the situation and will consider the need for any further extension later this year. This is a proportionate and reasonable approach that allows for appropriate and timely decisions to be taken in response to the prevailing circumstances. Of course, these vehicle age limits exist in the first place because the regulator recognises that newer vehicles are generally safer, more comfortable for passengers and more environmentally friendly. Therefore, we can expect any further extension of vehicle age limits to be targeted and limited, balancing the interests of SPSV operators and the wider public and passenger interest. This Government has committed to continue supporting the greening of the taxi fleet and will continue to provide financial assistance to drivers to switch to battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. My Department has several specific initiatives to encourage the movement away from fossil fuels in the small public service vehicle sector. As such, I would not favour a blanket extension of age limits of the type sought by taxi representatives as it would conflict with these important priorities.

I know that some taxi representative groups have called for a moratorium on the issuance of new SPSV licences. Current demand for new taxi licences has collapsed to a small fraction of previous application levels and as such it is not clear how preventing new applications would assist the industry through its current difficulties. In any event, for the past two decades the Government has not exercised quantitative controls on the issuance of taxi licences. Prior to the abolition of those controls, the country, and Dublin in particular, suffered from a chronic undersupply of taxis. The abolition of the controls was necessary to address these supply issues. Over the past two decades, this policy has served passengers well. As I do not believe passenger interests would be served by the reintroduction of quantitative controls, I do not favour imposing a moratorium on the issuance of SPSV licences at this time. When I met taxi driver representatives, they outlined a type of buy-back scheme for taxi licences but, in view of the fact that there are no quantitative controls on entry into the SPSV industry, I do not see a basis for such a scheme.

In all that chatter, there was no clear commitment. The Government cut the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, of many taxi drivers who now have even less work available to them because of the new restrictions and there is no income subsidy for those who are able to return to work. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are in a dire situation but there has been no commitment by the Government. Will it commit not to cut their PUP if they must stay off work and that it will give them the income subsidy? Incredibly, licences continue to be issued while the industry is on its knees and there is 70% less work available for the fleet. Taxi drivers have, on average, €11,000 of costs which are clocking up all the time while there is no work available to them. They are not getting grant support in that regard. They have asked for the implementation of a buy-back scheme for drivers who wish to exit the industry but that has not been done. The last two actual taxi driver representatives on the taxi advisory committee left it because it is completely unfit for purpose, does not represent the interests of taxi drivers and does not put forward demands that would protect their livelihoods and industry.

I cannot give clear commitments on the matter now because we must sit down again with taxi representative groups in advance of so doing. As I stated to those groups, I wish to sit down with the Department and the NTA. I discussed the matter with the NTA this week. My Department had similar meetings with the NTA and will do so again next week before we have further discussions with the taxi representative groups. I wish to sit down with those groups. I listened to them identify the real and critical problems facing the industry, which is in real difficulty, as are many other industries, and I am committing to doing whatever we can to help it get through this difficult time. However, I wish to have a chance to talk to the representative associations and go through the possibilities rather than make commitments in the Dáil before my Department and the NTA have sat down to tease out the possible changes.

It is certain and clear that the Government is looking to support taxi drivers through this difficult time, not just in Dublin, but across the country. They are a vital part of our transport infrastructure and they must survive this pandemic period and come out the other side. I am convinced that they will do so and I hope that we will end up with a better service for taxi drivers and their customers.

It was not a good start for the Government to cut taxi drivers' PUP payments at the same time as it imposed restrictions that will even further reduce the amount of work available to the drivers. The Minister really needs to get a move on and give those assurances. The taxi drivers do not wish to hold another protest, but they believe they have no other choice because they are in desperate straits.

On the ten-year replacement rule, that could be changed now. The drivers do not have the money to replace their vehicles. It is not true to state that this issue will not arise until the end of the year because the drivers need to know 90 days in advance whether they are going to renew their licence for their existing car, buy a new car or leave the industry. They need to know these things now. It is clear they have no faith in the taxi advisory committee. They were part of it but their last two representatives left it because it simply is not representing their interests. I appeal to the Minister to get a move on because taxi drivers are in a dire situation. Words, tea and sympathy are not enough. They need concrete assurances and real supports to get them through this period.

We will act quickly on this issue but we need to get it right. I need to work with the Department and the NTA to make sure we go back to the industry representatives with clear measures that are doable. Not all of them will be doable, but wherever a measure is possible, we will act, such as by extending the PUP into next year. The Government has not ruled out further revising the PUP if that is needed because the pandemic lasts longer or is more severe than expected. There is no shortage of support available. The €3.5 billion payment so far under the PUP is just a part of what must be done. I commit to going back to speak to taxi representative groups again. Where it is possible to take practical measures that improve their lot and maintain a proper taxi service, we will so do. It will not be easy and not every measure will be achievable, but I certainly commit to look at each of them. I listened to the representative groups with real respect. I will meet them again. Where we can amend things, we will do so.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

3. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the measures he is taking to protect and ensure the future viability of the taxi industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25995/20]

It should not escape the attention of the Minister that 40% of the Priority Questions that have been tabled are on the issue of taxis. Rather than having a repeat of his exchange with Deputy Boyd Barrett, I ask the Minister to focus on the financial package for taxi drivers for which he is advocating as the Minister with responsibility for the sector.

Rather than reading out the full reply I have before me, I will focus on the financial aspect of this issue. The fundamental problem is that there is no way to replace the passenger demand for taxis that has been lost during the pandemic. It will only return as the pandemic is brought under control and economic activity across all sectors recovers. However, the Government measures should ensure that operators who wish to remain in the industry will be able to do so, enabling them to thrive again once the pandemic abates. Many taxi drivers have been able to avail of the pandemic unemployment payment and it will remain open to new applicants for the remainder of the year. It is an important lifeline for SPSV operators. Many of them may have gone back to work as the economy began to reopen only to find that subsequent necessary public health measures once again suppressed passenger demand for their services. The continued accessibility of the PUP will provide an important safety net to operators, recognising their dependency on other sectors of the economy.

SPSV operators who come off the pandemic unemployment payment can avail of the Covid-19 enterprise support grant. This one-off grant, worth up to €1,000, can be used towards the costs associated with reopening a business which can include the purchase of cleaning materials, approved dividing screens and personal protective equipment.

Self-employed SPSV operators, who were profitable in 2019 but not in 2020 due to Covid-19, may be able to avail of an income tax relief allowing for up to €20,000 of losses from this year to be offset against profits from 2019.

Many SPSV operators have car loans for their vehicles and, therefore, may be able to benefit from the Government's credit and liquidity measures. The Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme provides for loans at a discounted interest rate backed by the Government. The Covid-19 business loans scheme provides for loans of up to €25,000 interest free for six months, with a Government rebate available for the interest payable for the following six months.

I am glad the Minister mentioned the enterprise support grant. Taxi drivers are reporting that it can take up to 11 weeks for applications to be processed and in that time they are supposed to be back at work and earning. They do not have the reserves to get back to work. That delay needs to be addressed.

I will give an example of an application under the credit guarantee scheme in my constituency. One of my constituents who was refused a low interest loan on a Monday under the credit guarantee scheme was given a loan by the same bank on Wednesday of the same week to buy the same car at an interest rate of 9%. I want the Minister to look into that. It seems the scheme is not operating as intended and certainly not to the benefit of taxi drivers.

Is there a proposal to increase the pandemic unemployment payment to €350? What will be considered in the budget? What proposals is the Minister making? What is in the mix?

I would appreciate if the Deputy would provide me with details of the examples he gave. If there is an eight-week delay in processing the applications for the enterprise support grant, I would be keen to know that and I would check up with the relevant authorities as to why that happened. Similarly, if there are instances where an application under the credit guarantee scheme was refused only for the same bank to approve the loan under a separate scheme, I would appreciate if the Deputy would provide the details because I would get my Department to follow up.

With regard to the pandemic unemployment payment, that is obviously a matter for the budget and the Ministers for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance to decide. My understanding is this will not be exclusively a matter for the budget process and we may need an ongoing review process. We will have to establish a recovery fund later this year which will give us flexibility in how we manage the pandemic into next year. That may well include revisions, extensions and alterations, as appropriate, to either the pandemic unemployment payment or the employment wage subsidy scheme. However, that is not an issue for me to decide. It is for the Cabinet collectively to decide in the remaining months of this year.

I welcome the Minister's statement that he will engage with taxi drivers. They have clearly set out their asks and they want the Minister, who is their Minister at the Cabinet table, to articulate their position on expanding the Covid pandemic unemployment payment and also the step-down payment. The Minister needs to hear that loudly and clearly from this side of the House and from taxi drivers. Taxi drivers need to hear from the Minister, both in the House and at the Cabinet table. That is a clear and reasonable ask.

Another issue that taxi drivers have raised time and again is insurance costs. I would like to hear from the Minister a clear statement on his asks of the Government in the run-in to the budget and on his efforts to address the high cost of insurance.

Insurance is a critical issue, on which reports from the Central Bank and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission will have a material bearing. The Government will have to assess those reports and act on them to bring down the cost of insurance for everyone.

With regard to the meeting with the taxi drivers and the range of issues that they rightly raised, the critical issues are the industry specific ones, including the lifetime of vehicles, access for taxis to bus lanes and protective measures within the cab. Those and the industry specific restart, credit and other support mechanisms are the issues on which I will have to focus.

On the characteristics of the pandemic unemployment payment as a universal social welfare payment, it would be difficult and possibly incorrect to start moving away from the universality of the social welfare system because we would end up with whole categories of people falling behind or losing out. That is not an easy adjustment to make for a specific industry. However, where there are industry specific measures we can take for taxi drivers, I will focus on those. Looking at future licensing applications and the types of vehicles and supports for that are where there is real potential for us to help the industry through this difficult time.

Covid-19 Tests

Matt Shanahan

Question:

4. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Transport the status of the trials of proposed pre-flight airport testing and airport protocols before entry here; the stage of the process; the position regarding the overall situation in relation to air travel into and out of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25992/20]

Our aviation sector is in crisis. I ask the Minister to update the House on the trials of proposed pre-flight airport testing and airport protocols before entry into Ireland, the stage of the process and the position regarding the overall situation in relation to air travel into and out of the country.

I thank the Deputy for his question.

The Government's approach to international travel to date has sought to protect public health and contain the disease while respecting that in certain circumstances travel will be essential. Under the plan for living with Covid-19, it is proposed that Ireland will broadly support the European Commission proposals on a co-ordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We will continue to engage with member states and the Commission to develop a regime that is consistent with the public health requirements.

The European Commission proposal is to promote a common approach to travel restrictions and movement within EU. A co-ordinated approach among member states requires joint efforts on four key points: the application of common criteria and thresholds in deciding whether to introduce restrictions to free movement; the mapping of common criteria using an agreed colour code; the adoption of a common approach as to the measures applied to persons moving to and from areas identified as higher risk; and providing the public with clear, comprehensive and timely information about any restrictions and accompanying requirements.

The proposal from the Commission is still under consideration by member states, but there are three components. These are common use of EpiData to determine which country is on which list, quarantine or self-restrictions, and testing at airports. Preparations for the implementation of the European Commission proposal will ensure that the establishment of any pre-departure or on-arrival testing arrangements for incoming travellers do not impact on the testing and tracing of symptomatic patients and serial testing of high-risk groups or workplace environments.

My Department is, therefore, engaging with Department of Health and the HSE in looking at possible ways to provide for a robust testing or screening regime, which is consistent with public health requirements and cognisant of resources and capacity available in the health sector for the testing and tracing of the general public, to allow for an increase in international travel.

I thank the Minister of State. It is abundantly clear that the aviation sector is in crisis. As has been documented internationally, we have imposed tighter strictures on the level of activity in the sector. We have Brexit coming down the tracks and people will need access to air travel in order to create new connections and to open new markets.

I am not sure how widely we have been looking at testing rather than waiting for the European Union to come up with possible opportunities. I raised in the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response some time ago the availability of antigen testing, which has not been examined. These are short-term, 20-minute turnaround tests which could be used in aviation. I cannot understand why they are not being spoken about or approached.

I would welcome the idea of a European-wide protocol on aviation. However, we are probably not on many countries' green lists and we will not be added to them unless we can get something done in the community here. However, I would like to see greater priority given to the issue of testing and quick turnaround tests.

Yesterday, I met the CEO of the Dublin Airport Authority, Mr. Dalton Philips, to discuss the potential of testing at our airports.

The DAA is exploring options for Covid testing involving modelling against a possible new approach to international travel requirements in line with the European co-ordinated approach to help assess the possible business and public health interests under different scenarios. It will factor in projected passenger demand and availability of testing supply capacity and that will inform our decision making. A significant concern is that whatever testing regime is put in place, it should not have an impact on our own public health testing capacity. We are all mindful of that. I agree that getting international travel back is essential. It is critical that we do so in a safe way that is evidence based.

I reiterate the importance of the aviation sector to Ireland. As the Minister of State probably is aware, Ireland has the world's largest aircraft leasing centre. In addition, particularly in respect of Ryanair, there is the question regarding services into Cork, Shannon and Knock. Will the Minister of State give an update on Waterford Airport's application for funding under the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport? It was to get a new runway. We hope that having got past Covid strictures, we can get services into Waterford. It is important to have a south-eastern regional airport link.

I acknowledge all those in Aer Lingus and Ryanair who have seen a major drop in their salaries. We must see what we can do to support that sector into the future.

On testing, it is important that we align ourselves broadly with Europe. The European proposal is a Commission recommendation for Council consideration on 13 October for adoption as a Council recommendation. The proposal is being dealt with under the interior and home affairs branch of the Commission. Initial indications from the Irish permanent representation are that this will be a challenging proposal for member states also. The issue of testing is complicated and is the subject of a great deal of discussion, including in my Department. I met representatives of the DAA yesterday. The officials in the Department also met the HSE and the Department of Health on our approach. Every focus and effort is being put into the testing regime and ensuring we can do that.

Regional airports will be dealt with in my next question. I can revert to the Deputy specifically on Waterford.

Regional Airports

Michael Fitzmaurice

Question:

5. Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice asked the Minister for Transport the supports being put in place to ensure the economic viability of regional airports, such as Ireland West Airport Knock, which are facing enormous economic challenges as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. [25863/20]

What supports are being put in place to ensure the economic viability of the regional airports around the country? There is a perfect example near the Minister of State's constituency, namely, Ireland West Airport Knock, which is facing enormous economic challenges as a result of Covid-19.

As a result of Covid-19, the challenge facing the aviation industry is unprecedented, and Irish airports have been fully exposed to the dramatic downturn in activity. I absolutely appreciate the effects that this could have on the long-term economic viability of airports, particularly smaller aviation enterprises like Ireland West Airport Knock.

The Government is committed to doing what it can to support the industry, while having regard to the many other demands on the Exchequer.

In order to assist business and protect employment, the Government has put in place a comprehensive suite of generalised supports for all companies, such as wage subsidy schemes, grants, low-cost loans, commercial rates waivers and deferred tax liabilities. Up to the end of August, Ireland's smallest regional airports, including Ireland West Airport Knock, had received or were in the process of applying for supports to a value of almost €700,000.

In addition, and in line with priorities for regional development, the Government is also providing €6 million in grant aid for safety and security related measures under the regional airports programme in 2020. To date this year, Ireland West Airport Knock has received over €1million in capital investment and will be eligible to apply for operational supports in the coming weeks. A new regional airports programme for 2021 to 2025 is also being finalised, which will help regional airports, like Ireland West Airport Knock, to remain viable as they begin to plan for recovery and transition away from the devastation of Covid-19.

All support mechanisms for the aviation sector will continue to be reviewed in the context of the Government’s plans for international travel, having regard to the recommendations of the aviation task force.

The Minister of State referred to loans being available. The sad reality is that for airports such as Ireland West Airport Knock, income is €4 million less this year. One can borrow money but how can one repay it if there is no income? There has been a 50% reduction in the workforce. There is a focus on many things. The Minister of State has met people in Dublin Airport. Has she met people such as Joe Gilmore in Ireland West Airport Knock or anyone in Shannon Airport to hear their frustration? The Minister of State will understand, as she comes from Galway. The situation in the west of Ireland is unique because of the number of youngsters who had to take the plane when the country went broke. Regional airports are the link which keeps many families together and which make the west accessible to get to places like England rather than taking three hours to get to Dublin and queue for ages. If people from the west have to go through Dublin Airport they will not bother returning every weekend, as it is too much hassle. Is the Government prepared to ensure those airports, whether Ireland West Airport Knock, Shannon or Cork, are kept viable and kept going?

I am also aware of the importance of our regional airports and ensuring that we maintain that connectivity. I have visited Knock Airport and have had meetings with all the airports since my appointment. I am acutely aware of the pressures they and their staff are under and the great work and difficult decisions that many regional airports have had to make over recent weeks and months.

Ireland West Airport Knock is not alone in experiencing the stresses which many regional airports and the airline sector are under. In July, I announced supports of €2.5 million for capital investment in areas of safety and security in Donegal, Kerry and Ireland West airports, the latter having received €1 million. Further funding will be available for operational support to a total value of €3.5 million. I will continue to work on this.

The only problem with capital investment is that it does not help with the day-to-day running costs of an airport. I am asking the Minister of State to be very mindful that everything has focused on Dublin Airport. There is a danger for Cork, Shannon and Ireland West that if things continue as they are, they will not survive and we will lose the regional airports. Will the Minister of State give a commitment to secure the future of the regional airports whatever it takes?

There was funding for capital investment. A process will also open up for regional airports to access operational support under the Government's regional airports programme. Historically, Ireland West Airport Knock has been well supported by Government-backed programmes. Last year it received €9.4 million in Exchequer funding. This year, I intend to bring forward a regional airports programme for a five-year period starting in 2021. That will ensure ongoing capital and operational supports for airports such as Ireland West Airport Knock.

I assure the Deputy that the Government recognises the value of our regional airports in relation to connectivity, tourism, the local area and jobs within the regions. I will continue to work with the aviation stakeholders, as will my officials. It is in everyone's interest that the airports, like all businesses, are in a good position to contribute to Ireland's post-pandemic recovery. That is a commitment that I give the Deputy today.