"That Dáil Éireann:
recognises the vital strategic role occupied by the aviation sector in the development of the national economy and the importance of maintaining connectivity to the regions;
is deeply concerned at the imminent crisis facing Irish airports, in particular, Shannon, Knock,Kerry, Donegal and Cork airports; and
recognises that transatlantic flights to and from Shannon can be operated with a reduced carbon footprint per passenger compared to those operated from Dublin Airport, and also recognises the unsustainability of an ever-increasing proportion of tourists flying into Dublin Airport whence they are being bussed to other regions of the State;
acknowledges the link between attracting foreign direct investment into regions and their aviation connectivity; and
calls on the Government to:
— implement in full, the recommendations of the Aviation Recovery Taskforce;
— prepare a new national aviation policy that recognises the importance of regional connectivity to balanced and more sustainable regional development;
— revise Fáilte Ireland's objectives to include attracting tourists to fly directly into the State's regional airports;
— develop a testing regime for passengers to and from both orange and red listed destinations in the European Union (EU) in order to fully implement the spirit of the recent European Council Recommendation on a co-ordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the Covid-19 pandemic;
— include Shannon and Cork airports in financial assistance currently provided by the State for capital works and the development of routes (as allowed under EU state aid rules) by increasing said financial assistance in recognition of the precarious financial position of airports outside Dublin; and
— acknowledge Shannon Airport's traditional role as Ireland’s transit airport and the reduced carbon emissions of intercontinental flights from the airport due to its longer runway and, in acknowledgement thereof, limit fifth freedom rights to airlines using Shannon Airport for intercontinental transit flights."
I thank my colleagues in the Independent Group and the other Independent groups for their support. As an island nation, the aviation sector affects each and every part of this island and this State. It is clear that the downturn in tourism and aviation, which is a direct result of Covid-19 but has also been contributed to by the Government's response to Covid-19, has affected every part of this State but has disproportionately affected the western seaboard. That much is clear from a report published by the Central Bank less than a month ago. It pointed to far greater job losses in counties on the western seaboard, which are dependent on seasonal industries, especially tourism which has, unfortunately, been decimated by Covid-19.
I note the Government's countermotion states that we need to examine aviation policy and that it had planned to examine it but that, because of Covid-19, it will concentrate on the short term. I have no problem with concentrating on the short term but I have a problem when doing that is to the detriment of looking at the long term. I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive and I do not see why both cannot be done together. I urge the Government, notwithstanding its countermotion, to look at the short term and long term in tandem.
Speaking of the short term, I welcome yesterday's announcements by the Government. I welcome the support of all of my colleagues in the Independent Group and the other Independent groups. It concentrated minds in the Government on this issue, which we have been talking about for a long time. There have been announcements for Shannon Airport in particular, which I have welcomed. Yesterday, as a result of that concentration of minds, we had an announcement that affects most of the airports in the country and certainly the airports that are the subject matter of this motion. The Government's announcement does not go far enough, however. One can never go far enough in supporting something that is so vital to the State. We have put almost all of our eggs in the aviation basket. Uniquely for an island nation, we do not have a large shipping industry. However, we have a large aviation sector, one which is very important for the future of this country.
I will briefly mention the Sinn Féin countermotion. I have discussed it with some of my colleagues. I, for one, have no problem with including Waterford Airport in the motion. The reason it was not included is that it faces a requirement for capital funding to bring its runway up to the required standard to operate scheduled flights, whereas the airports mentioned in the motion all had scheduled flights until very recently.
To return to the issue of a national aviation policy, aviation policy is effectively a free-for-all at the moment. We say that is free market economics but, unfortunately, that does not always work. I share with both the Green Party and the Labour Party – I see Deputy Duncan Smith is present – the view that we need competition. The central planning of sectors by the State does not necessarily work. We need a degree of competition but, equally, we need the State to set the parameters of the market and outline the ambit in which competition would take place. At the moment, what we have is Dublin Airport undercutting all of the other airports because of economies of scale. It does so to the detriment of other airports but also to the detriment of people who live near Dublin Airport because it does not necessarily make sense to have all flights in the country flying in and out of Dublin. I will move on to fifth freedom flights in a moment. There are flights out of Dublin Airport which do not even benefit the greater Dublin area or the people around it. Dublin is not a 24-hour airport whereas Shannon Airport is. People bought houses and chose to live near Dublin Airport in the belief that it would not be a 24-hour airport because it was not one at the time.
Likewise, people around Shannon knew the situation when they chose to live there. Indeed, Shannon was built around the airport.
With regard to fifth freedom flights, we need to be very clear about what they are. They are intercontinental flights from one continent to another that merely transit through Ireland. The majority of passengers board in Africa, where most intercontinental flights through Ireland governed by the fifth freedom originate, and disembark in North America. They get on in Africa and get off in North America having merely flown through Ireland. Such flights can let off or take on passengers in Ireland but the point of origin and the destination are outside Ireland. For a long time, Shannon Airport was the transit airport for such flights, partly because Aeroflot was able to refuel there. Dublin Airport, however, undertook a very aggressive campaign to undercut Shannon Airport to attract those flights to boost its passenger numbers to justify expansions. These expansions were, by the way, carried out in the teeth of opposition from local residents. While there was a very short-term benefit for Dublin Airport in attracting these flights, it was to the long-term detriment of Shannon Airport.
At the moment, it is a simple competition between Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport because they have the size of runways and the terminals required to accommodate the type of flight about which we are talking. That may change over time as technology changes. Smaller aircraft may be used for transatlantic and longer flights. Cork Airport may have a particular view on the suggestion that it is a competition between Shannon Airport and Dublin Airport but, for the moment, that is the case.
In his counter-motion, the Minister has outlined the supports Tourism Ireland provides for regional airports but, at the end of the day, we need to look to Tourism Ireland's objectives. Its objective cannot only be to get people to visit the regions. If that were to be so, we would have gridlock in Dublin while no money was spent in the other regions. Getting people to fly into Dublin before getting a bus to the Cliffs of Moher, Connemara, Spanish Arch, Donegal to see Sliabh Liag or to visit sites related to the Flight of the Earls or to visit Killarney National Park for the day is not the same as getting people into the regions. It is getting them to go to the toilet in the regions or maybe have a cup of coffee. At the end of the day, they are flying into Dublin and staying there while paying the uncompetitive prices charged for Dublin hotel rooms.
All of this may seem like a pipe dream from the past. It almost seems like a different reality but we have to look at the long-term picture as well as the short-term picture. That is why we in the Independent Group are urging Government to look at a new aviation policy that takes account of the impact of aviation on our economy more broadly. Such a policy would also include objectives for Tourism Ireland to encourage people to fly into the regions. When people fly into the regions, they stay and have meals there. They spend more time and money in the regions.
To go back to what I said earlier, no amount of short-term Government funding will save our aviation sector if our airports remain closed. I spoke to the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, last May having spoken to the Irish embassy in Austria and the Austrian embassy in Dublin about the testing being carried out in that country. I do not suggest for a moment that we endanger people but we have to look at the fact that other European countries, which are less dependent on aviation, have kept their aviation sectors open to a far greater extent than we have and have managed to do so safely through the use of testing.
I know there is a tussle or battle ongoing between the Government and NPHET with regard to everything to do with Covid. That is unusual in a European context. In most other countries, medical advisers advise and the Government takes their advice, and the advice of many others, before coming to a decision. Ireland seems to be unique in that this advice is sometimes published before the Government even gets to consider it. I appreciate that NPHET has questions about any kind of testing other than polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing. A member of NPHET who runs a laboratory that carries out PCR testing argued that it was the only acceptable type of testing. That raises questions in and of itself.
We need to look very carefully at what other countries are doing, particularly other countries that have managed to deal with Covid as least as successfully as we have. Like everybody in the country, I am glad to see the numbers falling to the extent they are, but I have questions about what we do next. What we do next will be key. We cannot stay locked down forever. I am sorry. I have gone over my ten minutes. I apologise. I urge the House to support this motion and I thank all Deputies for their interaction.