Regional Airports and Aviation: Statements

I am delighted to have the opportunity to update the House this evening on what the Government is doing to support our regional airports and aviation in general. As an island nation, Ireland is particularly dependent on air connectivity, both socially and economically, and we all know that international travel and regional connectivity, which is facilitated by our regional airports, is vital for the economic well-being of the regions served. Government policy on regional airports seeks to optimise conditions for regional development and connectivity for both social and economic benefits. The Government recognises that, as employers, airports contribute to the local economy and employment is also supported through the various ancillary services that are provided to the airports. However, we are all too aware of the impact Covid-19, coupled with the emergence and spread of variants of concern, have had on international travel.

Globally, aviation is experiencing the most challenging crisis in its history, with European flights reducing from more than 11 million in 2019 to 5 million in 2020. Restrictions on international travel to date have further suppressed passenger numbers. Passenger air travel revenues have fallen to a fraction of 2019 levels. Scheduled carrier flights were down by approximately 60% and at year's end more than 4,000 aircraft, which represents half of the European aircraft fleet, were grounded. A similar number of flights across Europe is forecast for 2021 in a base case scenario. However, Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, has indicated that if more states relax their restrictions sooner and fully implement procedures, such as the EU's digital Covid certificate, as soon as possible, its forecast optimistic scenario could see the network handling 69% of 2019 traffic levels in August.

In Ireland, the general reduction in passenger numbers has severely impacted the aviation industry. This has led to companies, both in Ireland and in a wider European context, taking action to rationalise their cost base, including redundancies and staff reduction measures, as well as taking steps to safeguard liquidity through borrowing and new shareholder capital. I deeply regret the most recent announcement of the loss of 480 jobs as a result of the entry into voluntary liquidation of Stobart Air over the weekend. This came further to the announcement by Aer Lingus of the closure of its base at Shannon recently. I acknowledge the devastating impact of these announcements on all the staff involved and to all those in the aviation industry who continue to be impacted by the most sustained and deepest period of suppression this sector has ever faced.

Job cuts have unfortunately been a feature of other European airlines, including the loss of 24,000 jobs at Lufthansa, 10,000 jobs at lAG, 5,000 jobs at KLM, with further job losses signalled in industry-wide restructuring as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. These job losses have arisen even with the provision of substantial state supports and are indicative of the scale of the crisis in the sector.

As Deputies will be aware, Stobart Air's plans to secure a new buyer failed over the weekend and this action resulted in Stobart Air commencing a process of voluntary liquidation. This resulted in Stobart Air's franchise agreement with Aer Lingus being terminated with immediate effect.

I assure the House that the restoration of regional connectivity is a critical priority for the Government. The market has already moved to replace some of the lost routes, with Aer Lingus and BA CityFlyer now operating temporary replacement services which will cover most of the affected routes operating out of Dublin Airport and Belfast City Airport. Together with routing options, this will allow passengers impacted by the situation to return home.

The termination of the franchise agreement with Aer Lingus also had immediate implications for both of our Government PSO-supported air services operated by Stobart Air on two routes between Dublin Airport and Donegal and Kerry airports. I am, however, happy to advise that work is under way in my Department to launch an emergency procurement process with a view to restoring air services on these vital regional routes as quickly as possible in the coming weeks. I fully understand the importance of having these services in place by 19 July, when international travel is to return. My Department plans to issue a request for quotes directly to airlines in the coming days in accordance with applicable EU rules on air service PSOs. It is anticipated that this accelerated procurement process will be completed by early July with a view to services recommencing under the new operator or operators as soon as possible thereafter. The new contract will be subject to a maximum term of seven months and will operate in accordance with EU law. To mitigate against any further disruption to these services, my Department will also launch a procurement process for the continued provision of the services for a maximum of four years. This will apply after the temporary contract has expired. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I will continue to engage closely with aviation stakeholders, including representatives of the airports in Kerry and Donegal, to keep them informed of plans in this regard. I am happy to advise Deputies that a number of airlines have already been in contact to indicate their interest in operating these routes.

The Government is fully cognisant of the ongoing and deep impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector and has put in place a range of supports for businesses, including those in the aviation sector. These supports are unprecedented and include the wage subsidy scheme, the waiving of commercial rates, deferral of tax liabilities and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. Liquidity funding is also available through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund. This is also being availed of. Taking all of these supports into account, it is estimated that more than €450 million will have been made available to the sector by the end of June. I acknowledge the importance of providing clarity on the extent and duration of the employment supports beyond the end of June. Airlines have been reassured that there will be no cliff edge in the horizontal State supports that have been available from the start of the pandemic.

The Government has also allocated funding of €80 million for an aviation-specific support package in 2021. This represents a quadrupling of the funding provided to our regional airports and in support of our PSO services for Donegal and Kerry in a normal year. Some €21 million of this funding is being provided to our smaller regional airports at Donegal, Knock and Kerry under the new regional airports programme for the period 2021-2025.

Furthermore, in acknowledgement of the severe impacts on our two State regional airports and in recognition of the importance of these airports in the south-west and mid-west regions which they serve, an unprecedented €32 million is being made available to support the airports at Cork and Shannon this year. This level of funding to our State airports is unprecedented as Ireland's State airports at Dublin, Cork and Shannon operate under a commercial mandate and, ordinarily, do not benefit from Exchequer support.

In recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on all our airports, schemes that are compliant with state aid rules have also been developed following extensive engagement with the European Commission by my Department. Under these schemes, a further allocation of up to €6 million is available to the airports at Donegal, Kerry and Knock. These schemes also include €20 million in compensation for the State airports at Dublin, Cork and Shannon. This funding will provide State airports with flexibility to roll out route incentives and charge rebates in consultation with airlines with a view to supporting the recovery and growth of connectivity. My Department is currently assessing applications for this funding and hopes to be in a position to disburse this compensation in the coming weeks. Additional funding that might be necessary for our regional State airports at Cork and Shannon will be considered in the context of the Estimates process this year in respect of budget 2022. Government fully accepts and is willing to keep under review any additional supports in this sector, if required. Deputies will be aware that the economic recovery plan published by Government on 1 June explicitly references this and recognises that additional supports may be required to support the aviation sector's recovery as it opens up.

The regional airports programme published by Government in February provides certainty for the airports that deliver connectivity to the regions for the next four years. Donegal Airport, Kerry Airport and Ireland West Airport, Knock, are eligible for funding under this programme. In addition to targeting the funding of safety and security projects and activities, the scope of the new programme has been expanded to encourage airports to reduce emissions and build climate resilience. The programme honours commitments in the programme for Government, which recognises the value of aviation to economic development, international connectivity and tourism, to deliver funding that will support services and ensure safety at our regional airports. All eligible capital projects submitted for funding by our regional airports were approved this year. Some €2 million in grant funding has been made available to deliver runway upgrade works and a new fire training centre in Knock. More than €1.7 million in funding has been provided to Kerry Airport to deliver replacement vehicles and CCTV upgrade works. Almost €900,000 in funding has been provided to Donegal Airport to fund a new fire truck and other projects including runway lighting.

Projects supported under the €32 million regional State airports programme, to which I referred earlier, include a runway overlay project at Cork Airport. This is currently being assessed but, given the costs involved, this project is subject to appraisal under the public spending code. Pending a satisfactory evaluation, I hope to be in a position to formally approve funding of €10 million for this project in the coming weeks. The funding that Government will provide to Cork Airport has allowed this project to be brought forward to this year. This is a vital and strategic project for Cork Airport and the management of the airport aims to complete the project within ten weeks, taking the opportunity to complete it while passenger numbers are suppressed so the airport can be ready to operate in an unconstrained manner once it reopens on completion of the works at the end of November. Projects costing more than €6 million are also being supported at Shannon Airport this year. These include an airfield rehabilitation project and upgrades to security scanners and security screening. This funding is being provided in addition to €6 million in funding allocated to Shannon Airport for a hold baggage screening project last year. Both of these airports will also benefit from operational funding of €15.6 million this year.

I assure Deputies that the Government is committed to continuing to support this sector. The Minister and I have engaged extensively with all aviation stakeholders, including through the aviation recovery task force, the National Civil Aviation Development Forum and the aviation subgroup of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, which I chair. It is clear from this engagement that the single most important factor for Irish aviation is the earliest and widest reopening of international travel possible, subject to public health considerations.

The main requirement of all aviation stakeholders has been clarity on a plan to permit the resumption of non-essential international air travel. This has now been addressed with the Government announcement on 26 May of a roadmap for the gradual reopening of international travel on 19 July. The current advice to avoid non-essential travel and related penalties will remain in place until 18 July. However, from 19 July, citizens will be advised to travel safely and in accordance with public health guidance and restrictions and to avoid non-essential travel to countries in which an emergency brake has been applied. From 19 July, we will also operate the EU digital Covid certificate for travel originating within the EU or the EEA. This certificate will show if a passenger is vaccinated against Covid-19, has recovered from Covid-19 or has a negative test result. All passengers will be advised to observe public health restrictions and to present for post-arrival testing if they develop symptoms.

Furthermore, from 19 July Ireland will also broadly align itself to the EU approach to non-essential travel into the EU from third countries outside the EU or the EEA. To protect its citizens against the importation of variants, an emergency brake mechanism will be co-ordinated at EU level to react swiftly to the emergence of a variant of concern or variant of interest. It is important to point out that, with regard to third countries such as the US and UK, strict travel restrictions remain in place. The US, for example, continues to limit entry for non-essential travel. For travellers entering the UK from outside the common travel area from countries on the green list, a negative test is required, carried out up to 72 hours in advance of travel, with a further requirement for a test up to two days following arrival.

Question No. 230 answered with Question No. 228.

I welcome the fact that the House has made time for statements on international travel but it is more than statements that we need. We have had statements on the matter on several occasions, not least in recent weeks. There are many people interested in this sector. More than 140,000 people across the State are dependent on it, directly or indirectly, and to a man and to a woman they are very anxious for the Government to outline and present a plan and, in the meantime, for it to provide supports for the sector and the workers in it.

There have been many criticisms made of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, as a result of his hands-off approach. I am disappointed that he is not available today to address this really important issue. I note that there is a proposal for another task force in respect of Shannon, for example. There is almost a pattern in terms of the response. It is important to note that although 19 July is in our sights, everything will not just fall back into place when travel reopens on that date. In fact, airports, airlines and aviation workers will face a significant uphill challenge in the coming months as travel resumes and they will need continuing support.

The transport committee has spent recent days discussing in detail the merits of antigen testing. I raised the issue again with the Minister this morning on Oral Questions. It is clear there was an attempt by some members of Government parties to lay the blame for all this at the feet of NPHET but the evidence of the CMO to the transport committee yesterday highlighted that the Department of Transport simply has not pursued this avenue aggressively. The CMO clearly stated yesterday to the committee that there is no evidence base for introducing antigen testing for international travel. I and other members of the committee pointed to several reports but none of the reports dealt with the area of international travel specifically. We can argue the merits of taking lessons from one report and trying one's best to implement a scheme but what I heard clearly was that no pilot studies were pursued. I do not think it is sufficient for the Department or the Ministers to have raised the prospect of antigen testing only to be told it is not advised or it is advised against. The whole point was to generate in a risk-free way a pilot study within the current constraints to assess the effectiveness or usefulness of antigen testing. If that were done, then at least we would know whether it would be effective rather than having to speculate in that regard and we could generate our own evidence base. To say that the issue was raised in the middle of May but the Department was told the advice was different is not satisfactory. In fact, an aggressive approach could have been taken far earlier.

It is quite likely that antigen testing would not be the be all and end all. All Members recognise that Covid is a real challenge and that we have to follow the public health advice at all times, but what is at stake here is that the Government is being asked to try to strike the best balance. It may be the case that no better balance can be found than the one with which we had to live, but the argument is that there were opportunities to do more but they were not taken.

On a related point, I discussed previously with the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, and heard discussed this morning the prohibitive cost of PCR testing, particularly for children who may be travelling with parents after 19 July. There is a question mark regarding how that will be dealt with. This morning the Minister, Deputy Ryan, stated that it will be considered. We should also consider the possibility of antigen testing. There is a real argument to be made in terms the most cost-efficient way to do things in the context of the taxpayer, but we must also be mindful of the public health advice in this regard. That said, there is still merit to pursuing pilot antigen tests.

As regards the digital Covid certificate, DCC, I hope the Ministers can provide more clarity regarding the introduction of the DCC, how it will work here and what criteria will apply. Many people will want to know that information as quickly as possible. It is to be hoped that a large number of people will be vaccinated in the near future. What role will PCR testing play? What criteria will apply in respect of various countries, particularly for those coming back into Ireland? Will there be a role for antigen testing? Many people are keenly interested in that issue. There is a host of questions to be asked. When will people be able to apply for the certificate? How long will it take to process? How will it work for those arriving in Ireland? Will the system work with those of non-EU countries such as the USA and Canada? There is still a lack of detail around this critical tool for safe international travel. I encourage the Minister and the Government to provide as much information as possible as early as possible on this issue.

What is the status of the aviation recovery task force report with which we have lived since last July? It was prepared and published last summer but few of its recommendations have been implemented. Why have the recommendations not been implemented? Will recommendation No. 5, which relates to the rebate of airport and air navigation charges relating to Dublin Airport, be introduced? On recommendation No. 6, which proposes a common fixed sum per passenger for Cork, Shannon, Ireland West, Kerry and Donegal airports, is there a plan for such a scheme to be introduced for these airports or has the Government combined these recommendations in the €26 million package approved by the European Commission earlier this year? If that is the case, I fear the Government has greatly underestimated the scale of support needed by the sector. I ask that clarity be provided regarding the exact source and scale of funding for the sector.

I refer to a group of workers in an industry directly related to the travel industry, namely, travel agents.

Theirs was one of the first industries to close and will likely be one of the last to reopen fully. Travel agents feel they have been overlooked in most recent Covid support announcements, notwithstanding the ongoing assistance provided under the employment wage subsidy scheme, which will begin to be phased out from September. Taking travel agents off the Covid restrictions support scheme now will result in the cliff edge the Government promised to avoid. The business resumption support scheme is capped at three weeks but the lack of revenue for the industry will continue for at least six months. I ask the Minister of State to address this massive issue facing travel agents.

I will conclude by referring to Stobart Air. My colleague, Deputy O'Reilly, and I met worker representatives from the airline this morning. Having worked for years for the company, they were devastated by what has happened. The way they were informed of the liquidation, in the middle of the night, was completely unfair. They have been left in an information vacuum. The liquidators contacted them in the past 24 hours and they were given a frequently asked questions document. That is the height of it. They have really important questions to ask about redundancy and social welfare entitlements. Some people, in pursuit of work with the company, moved from being based in Dublin to being based in Belfast, as a result of which there is a question mark over their social welfare entitlements. Will the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, engage with this group of workers and help them in every way they can? They have had a really tough 15 months and the way they have been treated in recent days is completely unacceptable. They need every support that is available.

I echo the call by my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, to support the workers at Stobart Air. There has been much bad news relating to the aviation sector during the pandemic, including that of cabin crew losing their jobs in Shannon and ground staff losing their jobs in various locations. Those job losses did not happen in huge numbers but in consistent, small numbers that may not have made the national headlines. By God, they made the headlines in the communities I represent and they have had a huge impact on those affected and their families. The sheer number and scale of the Stobart Air job losses has sent a real shock wave through every other aviation company operating in this State. There is a feeling that the gates have opened and everything that has been threatening for the past year and more is now coming to pass.

The Minister of State, in fairness, gave a detailed opening statement in which she mentioned a large number of capital projects. It is quite incongruous that in Dublin Airport, for example, construction work is continuing on the huge additional runway project and on new buildings that are part of the expansion of the airport, while, at the same time, the sword of Damocles is hanging over workers of every grade there and in airports throughout the country. What is really going on? Is there an agenda on the part of aviation companies to use the pandemic to change their terms and conditions of employment, get rid of employees on good contracts and replace them with workers on yellow-pack contracts? We have to start asking that question.

There is money going into capital projects in the aviation industry but jobs are not being protected, which is the key concern. Retaining the jobs and experience of the people working in the industry must be the priority. Everything else comes after that. We have been banging our heads against a brick wall talking about job protection being above all else. Yes, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, has helped. There is no doubt that supports have been put in place that have helped. However, jobs are being lost now. What has happened to the Stobart Air workers and the Aer Lingus cabin crew in Shannon shows that jobs are being lost in huge numbers. Unfortunately, there is no confidence among aviation workers that there is a level of engagement between the Government and the aviation companies to protect jobs. There is Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, funding but that has to be drawn structurally, it is commercial and all of that. It is not cutting through to the workers simply to say that, come 19 July and the months following it as, we hope, aviation takes off safely, their jobs will still be there. People have less confidence in that outcome now than they did a year ago. That is the concern.

I want to talk about antigen testing, which has been discussed a great deal this week. No one is saying antigen testing is a silver bullet. We on this side of the House are not saying that and nor are people in the industry. This issue is getting a lot of attention this week because the argument has been on whether antigen testing can be part of the solution. Many eminent medical scientists and professionals believe it can be part of a solution that would include PCR testing and all the other measures to which we have become accustomed. The Minister of State mentioned in her statement that her Department has engaged on several occasions with senior Ministers. Correspondence dated 11 May set out a number of issues, including a consideration of whether antigen testing should replace RT-PCR testing for international travel, initially on a pilot basis. That is concerning because nobody has asked that antigen testing replace PCR testing. The call is that they be used in concert. PCR testing could be used for passengers on the way out but we may need antigen tests for people on the way in. We are asking that antigen testing be put on top of the existing structure, to make it a bit more flexible where it can, but without in any way weakening what we already have.

I have real concerns that the right questions are not being asked on this issue, including by the Minister of State's Department to the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. We had a clear statement from NPHET yesterday, following questions I raised, stating that it had not heard from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, or the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. This morning during Question Time, the Minister said he has written to NPHET to ask that antigen testing be trialled for aviation. He said that this morning. The Minister of State has indicated in her statement this afternoon that she has written to NPHET on this matter. It is good that she has but if she is asking the wrong question, what is the point? There is huge confusion and anger on this issue and that anger and confusion is only growing.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for engaging with us in this discussion and for her attendance this morning at the meeting of the select transport committee. It has been an unbelievably difficult year for all 140,000 or so employees in the aviation sector and the many spin-off sectors that lean heavily on it. In the past week, we had the devastating announcement for Stobart Air employees and, with it, the realisation that ten public service obligation, PSO, routes are very much up in the air. I welcome the announcement by Aer Lingus in the past hour that it will be able to continue those routes on an interim basis. Emergency procurement is under way by the Department to plug that gap in the medium term, which is also welcome. It is absolutely essential for Ireland's regions that the routes are reinstated. In addition, there must be engagement with the many workers facing the devastating news that their employer is in liquidation. Where will they find employment in future and how do they pick themselves up as we come out of the tail end of the pandemic?

On top of that, there has been the devastating news, which has really hit hard in my constituency of Clare, that Aer Lingus is permanently closing its cabin crew base in Shannon. I want to quantify what that means because it has been misinterpreted in many instances. Losing a cabin crew base has a devastating impact on the staff employed there but also in terms of connectivity. With a base, there are aircraft flying out in the morning and other aircraft landing in the evening and parking up overnight. For passengers, there is the fabulous option of an early morning flight out and a late return flight. That is what we have had for many years in the mid-west, with flights going from Shannon Airport into Heathrow Airport. The base offered excellent onward connectivity that was key for economic activity in the region. That will be gone if we do not have a cabin crew base. In addition, a review of operations by Lufthansa Technik is under way, which points to the immense difficulties the maintenance, repair and overhaul, MRO, sector is experiencing.

Of course there is also hope. From 19 July, non-essential international air travel will be possible. We need to look more at how that is shaped, and antigen testing must have a major role in it. The reopening of non-essential travel might never have happened because there have been delays in implementing the plans. I am glad Sinn Féin is now with us on this, considering it opposed the votes in the European Parliament to fast-track the system and get it further along the line and implemented within a quicker time span. I am glad there is now commonality in the Dáil in terms of getting the system up and running and operational in the quickest possible time.

Regarding antigen testing, it is clearly set out under the digital green certificate system that there is an either-or option in terms of PCR and antigen testing. It costs €120 to €150 per person to be PCR tested.

I wish to add my voice to much of what has been said in the Chamber so far. We are talking about the aviation industry and 140,000 people who have been under extreme pressure, given what has happened to aviation. We must ensure that there is continuity of supports. Even when we get up and running, we accept that there will be a long-term impact for those involved in all areas of the travel industry. As has been stated by some of the previous speakers and as was put on the record by myself and others previously, supports, particularly for the big airlines, need to be linked to ensuring that jobs are kept for workers and their families with a view to sustaining them throughout this entire period. Even beyond that, we must ensure that there is no diminution of workers' rights. Obviously, we are aware of the brutal case of Stobart Air. In looking to the future, the Government has to step up to the mark to ensure that those workers who have been absolutely hammered in recent days are given all the supports they need. We must also look at the fact that there may be new takers for those routes from outside. In that case, we must ensure that there is no diminution of the rights of workers in respect of pay or subcontracting. We need to ensure that we keep an eye on that. Government must do that.

We have spoken about 19 July and the possible resumption of international travel. We all accept that public health must be taken into account across the board. Two things are required. There must be complete clarity in relation to the EU digital Covid certificate and how it is going to work within the State. Details must be provided on it. We need to know at what point the app will be up and running and how it will work in respect of the relevant testing regime or vaccination information to ensure that it can be uploaded or produced onto the paper copy. We really need detail on that. We cannot have a case where 19 July arrives and we do not have the tools that are required to facilitate people to engage in international travel.

We have had many conversations in relation to antigen testing. There may be some element of a disputed narrative in respect of communication between NPHET, the Department and the two Ministers. In fairness, the CMO, Dr. Holohan, told us yesterday in the meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications that there is an insufficient amount of evidence from his perspective. However, he also stated that he would fully support a pilot scheme if it was put in place. That means that the Department, the Minister for Transport and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, need to get their act together in respect of putting the correct questions down and ensuring that the correct parameters are put in place.

They must ensure that there is a deal with the aviation industry from the point of view of putting a proper plan in place to carry out antigen testing as soon as possible.

We all know it would have been far better had we done this three or six months ago. We are where we are, however, on this. While there are difficulties and public health has to be taken into account, we need to ensure that we have all the tools necessary to get us beyond this point.

I want to add my voice to those of other Deputies. We need to be cognisant of the real and genuine fear in the aviation industry about the potential for thousands of job losses over the coming months. There is a genuine fear that this pandemic is being used by some companies in the aviation industry to effectively restructure, get rid of jobs with good terms and conditions and then seek to replace them in the future with lower pay and conditions. In terms of its approach, there is no way the Government can stand back from that. It needs to address that serious fear.

Every time a Government representative responds to questions about job losses on the airwaves or elsewhere, the key message is always about job losses in other European countries. It is as if those involved are seeking to somewhat normalise the job losses here. The Government is not responsible for what happens in other countries. It is responsible for our jobs, our workers and our aviation industry. When workers are losing their jobs, the Government should not seek to normalise it by saying jobs are being lost in other European countries. It is the business of governments in those countries to answer for that.

The report of the aviation recovery task force was published almost a year ago, on 7 July 2020. Only two of its 12 recommendations have been implemented. One of those two recommendations is not specific to the aviation sector. The other has been implemented intermittently. The task force reported ahead of schedule, did its job and worked constructively. We need to know from the Government why it has not implemented those recommendations.

An excellent article in The Currency carried interviews with people in the aviation industry. There is a real fear that because the Irish aviation industry has done so well in the past and until recently, that the Government feels a hands-off approach is okay. They are worried about that attitude.

The digital green certificate will come in on 19 July. We do not yet have details about it. The general public does not know how it will operate, how they can access it or if it will be applied to the US and Canada. It is vital that confidence among the public is rebuilt in travel and aviation. How can we rebuild confidence when people do not know the picture with regard to the digital screen certificate on 19 July? People plan ahead for months when they are booking flights. The sooner we get that information out will be critically important to the recovery.

One recommendation of the aviation task force stated an efficient and effective track-and-trace system was needed for opening up. Why has this not been implemented? What are the Government's plans in that regard? The track-and-trace system is important for aviation and other sectors. Vaccination will do most of the work in building up public confidence. However, those sorts of measures around track-and-trace are important as well. There is pent-up demand for travel and people who will want to travel abroad straight away. We are also going to see a significant number of people who will be hesitant and fearful. That is why the measures which build confidence and the information around that are so important. We must make the most out of the digital green certificate on 19 July by getting that information out to people as quickly as possible. This will restore confidence and underpin the recovery. I appeal to the Government to be much more proactive in terms of jobs losses, especially in the context of the fight to retain terms and conditions in the sector.

I thank the Minister of State for being here dealing with her portfolio and responsibility for the area of aviation. There is no question our aviation sector and the 140,000 livelihoods supported by it before Covid-19 are under serious pressure. The Government must do absolutely everything it can to help rebuild our connectivity, the economic strength of the aviation sector before Covid and to provide the supports that are necessary to enable that to happen.

At yesterday's meeting of the transport committee, I went into quite a lot of detail on the major issues we are not addressing, including antigen testing. One point made by the Chief Medical Officer to the committee which quite concerned me related to whether the Department of Transport had engaged with NPHET directly on the issue of such testing. I would encourage an increase in the level of contact between NPHET, the Departments of Transport and Health on the use of rapid antigen testing in airport settings. That is crucial.

I am a Deputy from Cork and I want to use my time to discuss Cork Airport. It is an incredibly important hub for connectivity and for investment into the Cork region, as well as for international tourism. I am worried about the level of support that our airport is getting. As it is under the umbrella of the Dublin Airport Authority, which is obviously good in many circumstances but also from the point of view of its own financial situation, it is important the airport gets the same level of funding Shannon gets for capital expenditure, capex, and operating expenditure, opex.

We are going to see a long recovery period in the aviation sector. To assist our airports in opening up the new routes required and rebuilding the routes that have been affected by Covid, they will need continued financial assistance from the Department over the next number of years. In the context of capex and opex funding, it is crucial that the Department continues to work to secure funding for airports such as that in Cork. We desperately need that to happen. If it does not happen, it will put enormous strain on Cork Airport and aviation in general across the southern half of the country. I am told by aviation executives that we could be looking potentially at a three- to four-year recovery period to get back to levels of traffic similar to those that obtained in 2019. Obviously, this is not fantastic news for people working in aviation. It is deeply troubling to them in fact. We have to ensure the State does everything it possibly can.

It has been highlighted to me repeatedly by the people working in airport management that they are concerned about the level of advancement in terms of the Government's integration of the digital green certificate technology and about some of the anomalies which need to be addressed. Will the Minister of State have a round-table discussion with our airport CEOs and relevant management on that particular issue with the Irish Aviation Authority and other relevant stakeholders? We need to get that right from the start. We cannot afford to waste any more time on that particular issue.

I want to raise national as well as local topics. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, was before the transport committee yesterday. He is fully supportive of a pilot rapid antigen testing programme for the aviation sector. The Minister of State wrote to Ministers on 11 May. We would have written to the Minister and the Department on 6 May with a specific request on a rapid antigen testing pilot programme for the aviation sector.

That was over a month ago, as was the Minister of State’s letter. We could have covered a pilot test scheme in that time. As a matter of urgency, we now need to move at speed as we now know that the CMO, Dr. Holohan, and NPHET are now supportive of a rapid antigen testing programme being set up. This will require logistics.

We need to move from the abstract to putting this in place. It will require engagement from NPHET. I ask the Minister of State to pick up the phone and ring the Dr. Tony Holohan and start discussing with NPHET how this can be put in place. The airline industry needs to be contacted as it will have to be part of this rapid antigen test pilot programme. These are the two key players.

The type of test that we will be using then needs to be decided upon, as well as the routes that will be used. The UK is already looking at this and has the information technology, IT, systems in place. We need then a rapid antigen pilot testing programme established straightaway and not in a complicated fashion but with the correct metrics. We then need to run it in line with the introduction of the digital green certificate here in Ireland on 19 July. That is just over four weeks away. This is a serious amount of time when one is trying to get work done but it can be eroded very quickly if nothing is done. I ask the Minister of State to address where NPHET want to see the evidence and validation and this can be done through a pilot programme.

Furthermore, the report of Professor Ferguson of the Covid-19 rapid antigen group needs to be seriously considered by all Departments and by NPHET itself. It is a worthwhile document.

I want to move on to Shannon Airport, my local airport. It is critical that any supports that are given to companies such as Aer Lingus, and it will need supports, must have built into them the issue of regional connectivity, the Shannon-Heathrow slot and that the transatlantic routes will continue out of Shannon.

Second, we must expedite the appointment of a chair for the board of Shannon Group. That is critical. We need somebody to head this body.

Third, we need to see the review of Shannon Airport that has been ongoing within the Department for quite some time brought to a conclusion. Shannon Airport is vital to our region. We need to see it up and running. We see where Stobart Air were flying routes but were not flying existing routes out of Shannon. We need to reconnect those routes through Aer Lingus or other providers.

At this stage it is all systems go and we need to see absolute progress in getting down to the nuts and bolts of putting on place a pilot testing programme for aviation. This is about picking up the phone and ringing the airlines, Dr. Tony Holohan and NPHET, to forming a working group to say what we have to do now and to roll this out with immediate effect. The antigen tests are on the market, are there and are being used by the HSE on outbreaks as matters stand. The products are there and it is about putting the metrics in place and doing it in rapid-speed time in line with rapid antigen testing in order that we can be up and running around 19 July, aiming at that date as our target, or shortly thereafter.

The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, outlined previous funding announcements in her statement that were very much welcome at the time but I am here to tell her that it is not enough for Shannon Airport. I take no pleasure in commenting on the sorry state of aviation recovery this afternoon but I know that the people of Clare are absolutely exhausted and frustrated by the lack of direct action and ambition from the Department of Transport in the threatened status of our regional airports and, specifically, Shannon Airport.

It is indisputably at a critical point and Covid-19 has obviously had a detrimental effect on the aviation industry. What is even more devastating, however, is the lack of preventative measures taken to preserve the increasingly threatened stability of Shannon Airport. We have seen the net result of laissez-faire Government involvement as our airports have essentially had to compete against one another. That is no way to protect an industry and to ensure equal opportunities to thrive. The whole island benefits from balanced regional development and it makes sense, as our nation’s aviation sector as a whole would be more resilient, sustainable and equitable if balanced, regional development was genuinely high on the priority list for the Government. Dublin Airport Authority will protect Dublin and Cork airports but what about the rest of the regional airports of this island?

What about Shannon specifically? The dwindling numbers of both footfall and staff numbers demonstrated that Shannon Airport needed more protectionist measures to be taken to safeguard its viability. The Government response has consistently been a reactionary one rather than proactive and it has failed to take affirmative concrete action. Shannon Airport, as we know, boasts the longest runway in the country. It is also continuously mislabelled as a regional airport when it is in fact an international airport. Recently, a local Sinn Féin councillor, Donna McGettigan, set up a petition calling for a semi-State authority encompassing the international airports of Shannon, Cork and Dublin and within a week it received over 13,500 signatures. This is what the people want.

We know that the aviation sector has taken multiple blows. The pandemic essentially ground their activity to a halt. However, the broken record of reference after reference to task forces being set up, of reports and reviews, is not lost on the people. These exercises in futility have amounted to little more than a talking shop where very little concrete constructive action is taken. Where are the findings of the review, for example, as pledged by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, into the Shannon Group structures? The findings were never published or made known to the public and it seems futile to continue issuing reviews or reports if the conclusions of these inquiries are not used instructively.

The same goes for the task force for aviation recovery, as established by the former Minister, Shane Ross, last year. The recommendations were never implemented. Why has the Department commissioned reviews and simply not paid heed to their recommendations?

The aviation sector has been waiting for a roadmap as to how to proceed and emerge from these 15 months of stagnation and has not been given accurate guidance on how to plan for the reopening. The Government has held back on commitments to the extended provision of significant financial support for airports and airline workers and at the same time, it has refused to take measures to ensure that a swift, safe, and sustainable return of international travel is even possible.

Where does that leave the sector? The health of Shannon Airport is intrinsically linked to the integrity of tourism, hospitality and many other micro-economies that are of great importance to Clare and the region. I urge the Minister of State to consider the reintegration of Shannon Airport back into a national authority if the mid-west region is to recover from this pandemic..

I want to say a few words about Cork Airport. This is an airport that is set to be closed for a period of ten weeks from 12 September to 22 November, as repairs are being made to the main runway. Workers are facing a very difficult situation. These are workers in Aer Lingus, Swissport, OCS and in other airport workplaces. For example, Aer Lingus plans to temporarily lay off 200 workers, who will be forced to go on the dole and will not be paid by the company for that time or kept on the books. They have been kept on the books all through the pandemic but they are to be taken off the books for this period of ten weeks. Why is that? There is growing concern and fears among the workforce for their jobs and as to whether they will have a job to come back to. There are also concerns about their wages and conditions. It is the case that the company cannot legally change the wages and conditions of the workers while they have been temporarily laid off. Aer Lingus, however, has form. It is trying to organise a race to the bottom and to drive down wages and conditions and will try to exploit any situation to try to gain leverage here. Workers have had proposals put in front of them recently and I can inform Aer Lingus that they are not going to be accepted.

They include a five-year pay freeze, pay cuts, new starting rates of €12.30 an hour and changes to both the sick pay scheme and duty allowances - needless to say, in the wrong direction. Will Aer Lingus use the ten-week shutdown to increase the pressure on the workers to accept these changes to conditions? It would be naive for anyone to think it would do otherwise. Aer Lingus is a company in receipt of state aid. At the moment, for example, it is in receipt of the employment wage subsidy scheme and other supports. The State should not give Aer Lingus or the other companies I mentioned that are based at Cork Airport a blank cheque. Conditions should be attached to the moneys these companies receive, and one of those conditions should be that those workers will not be laid off, temporarily or otherwise, and that they will be left on the books in the way they have been throughout the pandemic.

There is silence from both the Minister of State and senior Ministers on the issue. The Government says this is a matter for the company and it is not prepared to interfere with the dealings of a private company. That is not good enough. Working people have kept this country going throughout the pandemic. They deserve to be treated with fairness and respect. Laying off these workers for a period of ten weeks, and increasing the pressure on them in regard to their jobs, wages and conditions, is not acceptable. It should not be acceptable to the Government and it is certainly not acceptable to me or to the workers at Cork Airport.

This issue is not going to go away. As we come closer to that deadline date, pressure will increase on the Government and on local Government Deputies, and I want it to be increased to the maximum extent possible. There needs to be fair play and justice for the Cork Airport workers and that means they must be kept on the books and not temporarily laid off. What is the Government going to do about it?

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important debate. The Covid pandemic has devastated the aviation industry, which was at a record high prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. In terms of passenger numbers, Shannon Airport was the second largest long-haul airport and the third largest airport overall in Ireland. Prior to Covid, it added up to €3.6 billion to Ireland's GDP and supported 43,700 jobs. The potential of the airport was not being reached prior to the pandemic and there is real concern it will struggle to emerge from the impact of Covid. The Government has provided life support to Shannon Airport and other airports by means of various supports such as the temporary wage subsidy scheme, the employment wage subsidy scheme and the operational and capital supports provided.

As the Minister of State will be aware, Shannon Airport connects the west of Ireland to the rest of the world. The restoration of connectivity is vital to Shannon Airport, the mid-west and western regions, the business community, including the large footprint of foreign direct investment, FDI, companies the airport serves, and the tourism industry all along the western seaboard. This week marked the long-awaited and welcome return of passenger traffic at Shannon Airport, with eight Ryanair routes now operating. It is my understanding that Ryanair plans to add further destinations to its Shannon Airport schedule ahead of the return of non-essential international travel on 19 July.

Last month, Shannon Airport was served a significant blow with the news that Aer Lingus is to permanently close its cabin crew base. This decision has had and will have a very negative impact on Shannon Airport and the mid-west. There was also the overnight closure of Stobart Air, another blow to aviation. I reiterate my request that the Government use the leverage of its current talks with Aer Lingus in regard to the bailout to reinstate the Aer Lingus cabin crew base at Shannon Airport and that these discussions be used to re-establish connectivity to Heathrow, New York, Boston and a European hub.

Ours is an island nation that depends on air connectivity. While the Government has invested in the vicinity of €300 million in the sector to date, this constituted what were effectively life-support measures. We now desperately need to invest directly in airlines to restore vital strategic routes and ensure the viability of the airlines that provide that connectivity and the jobs they support. Throughout Europe and the wider world, governments have provided billions of euro in state support to safeguard airlines and the jobs and connectivity they provide. As an island nation, why have we as a State not done the same?

We also need to get our heads out of the sand in regard to the use of rapid antigen testing as a tool to reopen international travel and follow the lead of the 17 other European countries that use such tests. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, of which I am a member, has been advocating for the use of rapid antigen testing since last year, and it is deeply disappointing that not even one pilot air corridor using it has been opened. The Minister for Transport should be leading this initiative. I ask the Minister of State to re-engage on the issue of antigen testing and ensure it will be rolled out as a vital tool in reopening international travel.

Shannon Chamber and the Irish Hotels Federation have been engaging with the Minister of State on the number of proposals the Government has developed to help spark a recovery in aviation. They argue that the recovery and growth of Shannon Airport's previously viable air services will require a sustained period of multi-annual funding until at least 2024 and potentially as late as 2029, depending on when air traffic returns to 2019 levels. I strongly support their proposals, which include multi-year capital expenditure funding to enable the smaller State-owned airports, such as Shannon Airport, to navigate their way out of the current crisis; a fixed sum per passenger to subsidise airport charges for airlines, which is the type of funding needed to grow traffic at regional airports; and the provision of a regional route marketing fund allocated to Tourism Ireland, also on a multi-annual basis, as a restoration of Ireland's air services, which is essential to connect our island to global markets that drive our industrial tourism and international services sector.

If the Government is serious about balanced regional development and unlocking the potential of economic drivers such as Shannon Airport, national aviation policy will have to be amended. Prior to Covid, Dublin Airport increased its share of the total number of passengers travelling through Ireland from 73% in 2005 to 86% in 2018. The increasing dominance of Dublin needs to be addressed in a similar way to the approach taken in other states that have implemented policy initiatives to counteract the dominance of the main national airport and mitigate negative impacts on other airports. The Dutch Government, for example, has capped the number of aircraft movements through Schiphol Airport to address the imbalance. The full capacity of Shannon Airport is 4.5 million passengers, yet only 1.8 million passengers used the airport in 2019. If the capacity at Shannon Airport can act as a buffer to Dublin Airport and be an integral part of Irish aviation policy, the synergies will be beneficial to both Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport.

I urge the Minister of State to press ahead with the appointment of a chairperson of the board of Shannon Group. It is of utmost importance that the successful candidate will have a strong background in aviation, business and tourism and a deep understanding of the mid-west and western regions. This is a crucial appointment for Shannon Airport and it is important that the necessary resources be made available to assist the successful candidate in taking on the role of chairperson of Shannon Group to develop a recovery plan for the airport and region in the wake of the pandemic. I ask the Minister of State also to publish the review of the structures of Shannon Group, which was initiated many months ago.

The structures were to be looked at and we were to receive feedback. It is very disappointing that review has not been published and we do not have any idea when it will be. There are obvious issues in relation to Shannon Heritage and where it sits within Shannon Group, which we have brought to the Minister of State's attention. That issue needs to be brought to a conclusion at the earliest opportunity. I ask the Minister of State to respond to the points raised in the course of my contribution.

Time and again I have stood in this convention centre and in the Chamber across the water and raised the difficulties facing the aviation sector. Many sectors were closed by the Government's public health restrictions out of necessity, but those sectors had a plan for their reopening. Aviation was closed and a task force established, but the recommendations of that task force have been completely set aside by the Government without any explanation. There was never a plan. The plan was to close; there was never a plan for reopening.

I have raised numerous and a diverse range of issues relating to cabin crew, ground staff, pilots, maintenance staff in our airports, retail businesses in our terminals, mechanics, engineers and businesses such as LDS Ltd, Luggage Delivery Services International, which are locked out of supports to the airlines. The only constant in the issues I raised is the Government's failure to deal with them and resolve them in the interests of the workers concerned. Workers in the sector are devastated. They are on reduced hours and pay. Some are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment and others the employment wage subsidy scheme. While many have been accessing jobseeker's benefit and short-term work supports, others have suffered the loss of their jobs completely.

Many workers across the sector have now received the news they have lost their entitlements to social protection supports because they have exceeded the days they can claim for. I am working with dozens of people through my offices in Swords and Balbriggan, and throughout Fingal, who are impacted by this. My colleague, Deputy Claire Kerrane, and I have raised this issue and we simply cannot get any movement on it. The rules around requalification were not drawn up with a pandemic in mind. They do not work for workers in this instance. The supports need to be extended beyond the current six and nine months and the rules around requalification have to be suspended.

Furthermore, just a few weeks ago, we heard the devastating announcement by Aer Lingus regarding base closures, along with the collapse of Stobart Air. Stobart ceased trading with a loss of 480 jobs and a liquidator has been appointed. More than 140,000 jobs depend on aviation and ensuring the island remains connected. At the heart of this devastation is a Minister and Government that have a completely hands-off approach to the aviation sector. Without our connectivity we are lost. The Government needs to hear the core message that it must protect our connectivity and aviation jobs. I am blue in the face saying this.

From the outset of the pandemic, workers and unions in the sector have called for two things, namely, supports and a plan. The supports for workers, airlines and airports are a fraction of what is needed, based on international comparisons. As I stated in the Chamber some weeks back, countries in Europe connected by rail and road invested far more in their aviation sector than we have, even though we are an island on the edge of the Atlantic absolutely dependent upon aviation. We really need to catch up.

I will mention the Stobart workers. A liquidator has been appointed. Some of the workers are in a trade union and some are in a staff association. They are absolutely lost. I ask the Minister of State to appoint a person in her Department to liaise directly with these workers. I ask her, and she might cover this in her closing remarks, whether she believes there will be a transfer of undertakings for some or all of these workers or how many of them might be involved in a transfer of undertakings, TUPE, arrangement. It is really important for them to know that now. I ask the Minister of State to talk to her colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, and ask her if a link person can be provided to liaise with these people because they are all at sea now. They do not know what is going to happen.

I am very conscious that in speaking about the aviation sector I am speaking about the future lives and livelihoods of more than 140,000 people around the country who work in this sector, along with a huge number of ancillary service providers who themselves offer significant employment. The sector, pre-Covid, was worth €4.1 billion to the Irish economy. In 2019, 38.1 million passengers passed through the airports. The changing threats that Covid has presented have reduced passenger air traffic in and out of Ireland to a trickle, with a resultant dramatic fall in income for many of those employed in the sector. I have received numerous letters and emails from pilots, cabin crew, ground staff and husbands and wives who are in dire financial straits as they try to keep mortgages and other financial payments up to date on significantly reduced incomes, wondering all the while if they will have any job to return to.

The narrative now is to look forward to the opening up of the economy and build back better. Our aviation sector, one of the strongest-performing components of our economy pre-Covid, has suffered hugely as a result of the need to try to protect our population at large. The Government now needs to reassess the importance of this sector to our future national economic recovery and to provide contingent funding to ensure this sector can survive the rest of this year as, hopefully, we build a recovery in the aviation component. For those for whom re-employment in the sector may not be possible, Government must prioritise new training and access programmes to offer these people an avenue to return to gainful employment.

We have seen persistent mixed messaging on the aviation sector regarding a possible reopening date, which appears dependent on our participation in the European digital travel certificate programme, potentially signalled as 19 July. This return promises some reinstatement of passenger travel in and out of Ireland, but for anyone unvaccinated it will come at the expense of at least one PCR test and either enforced or agreed quarantine for up to ten days after arrival into Ireland. These continuing restrictions are, judging by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, contribution to the transport committee yesterday, going to remain in place until those flying are virtually fully vaccinated. Any proposals regarding rapid screen testing for those flying into Irish airports seem now to be completely off the table, according to the Chief Medical Officer. It appears public health advice will remain consistent in taking no proactive measures to encourage travel or initiate any type of antigen testing that might help restore inward and outward travel to Ireland to any greater degree. This is completely at odds with what is happening with other European peers.

The strictures around testing and quarantine mean that many of our traditional international tourism markets will only function to the degree that international travellers are fully vaccinated. This has obvious implications for international tourist visitation, possibly up to the end of this year and beyond, depending on what variants may be in circulation elsewhere. It is worth reminding ourselves that tourism visits to Ireland in 2019 were of the order of 17 million visitors so we can see the breadth of the national problem we are facing.

Serious question must now also be raised regarding the future viability of our regional airports and, perhaps, even our international connectivity. Past decisions to sell the final tranche of Government ownership of Aer Lingus now appear to have been unwise. Given that Aer Lingus represents approximately 5% of International Airline Group's, IAG, commercial activity, the degree to which the parent company will continue to offer further support to its Irish subsidiary remains unclear. Beyond offering soft loans, what else is Government proposing to do to ensure we retain as many travel connections as possible from our pre-Covid portfolio?

Regarding the precarious state of our regional airports network, which has been clearly demonstrated by the failure of Stobart Air, what plans is Government envisaging to ensure our regions have viable connectivity to support the activities of multiple foreign direct investment, FDI, concerns based all around the country? I highlight Waterford Airport, in which I have a particular interest, where Government has given commitments to the extension of the runway. I wish to see these progressed, along with other supports to regional airports.

Nothing in life stays the same and neither does it in the aviation sector. Irish companies became some of the largest and best in the world, in terms of aircraft financing and creating successful low-cost travel options. Although the sectors have been severely dented, it is worth noting that Ireland has a significant diaspora who will wish to visit these shores again, along with an abundance of international travellers who will want to visit once the Covid situation is completely under control. It is the responsibility of Government to ensure we retain adequate aviation capacity in order to kick-start travel opportunity as soon as possible.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, must be encouraged to return to the House in the coming weeks to highlight the ongoing planning to secure these objectives.

I will raise a couple of points with respect to European travel, as a marker of how we are doing. European aviation tracking is now at 46% of 2019 levels and continues to rise. Some days it has exceeded 50%. Ryanair has brought around 800 additional flights per day into the European aviation market since 1 June, contributing to a 147% rise in flights over two weeks. There have been high increases for many states, with flights in Spain, Italy, Germany and France up 32%, 40%, 20% and 15%, respectively. These are substantial figures which reflect our position in terms of loss of competitiveness and reduced flying activity. We have to address this.

Ireland’s population is more than 1.1% of the European Union, yet its allocation under the European resilience fund was only 0.75%. Can we not fight for more of this fund to support our ailing aviation sector? More can be done in this regard. We are in a tough spot financially with Covid but our aviation sector was one of the bright stars pre-Covid. We must do all we can and give all the support we can to try to ensure the sector gets back on its feet as soon as possible.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about regional aviation and regional airports. There were many challenges facing our regional airport sector and aviation before the pandemic. They have been considerably accentuated over the past 15 months. We have seen how fragile our aviation sector is, in spite of the fine tradition we have. That fine tradition and those foundations mean we can rebuild stronger and better. The foundations, in terms of its regional support, ability to drive employment creation and identity, are important and it is also important we continue to protect them.

I acknowledge the work the Minister of State has done since her appointment to support Ireland West Airport in Knock, in particular, and the regional aviation sector generally. We can do much more and we should use this opportunity to reset how the State treats regional airports, particularly the non-State regional airports. We should reassess their funding model to give more certainty to airport management and staff. I compliment the staff and management at Ireland West Airport, who have done an enormous job in incredibly difficult circumstances. Many have been put on short time and they were placed on the PUP and various other payments when the airport was closed. The Government has provided support through the standard business supports. Staff are getting ready to reopen and grow the airport once more.

Before Covid, the regional airports, particularly the non-State regional airports, were the Cinderella of the transport sector. We have to get real about integrating them fully by providing State supports similar to the many supports some of the State airports get. Their funding must be provided on a multi-annual basis to enable them to plan operations and capital beyond 12 months. We need route supports for new airlines to add to the existing airlines in our regional airport network.

There were difficulties facing airlines flying aircraft in and out of regional airports before last weekend. Let us use the example of Stobart, regional air connectivity and the PSO issue as a chance to reset the supports we give to airlines to fly in and out of our regional airport network and add new routes.

Ireland West Airport has been a dynamic model for Mayo and the west. Pre-Covid, we were planning the development of a strategic development zone, SDZ, around the airport to make more of the land asset around the airport and provide economic support, infrastructure and planning for the area. The Covid recovery plan and national development plan review offer the Government a chance to support the airport board and Mayo County Council in developing, planning and marketing the SDZ as a place for business.

I congratulate everybody involved in the EirTrade Aviation initiative. EirTrade Aviation is an end-of-life aviation company working on aeroplanes and beginning the construction of a hangar. This industry was very successful previously and can be again. It can ensure talent and skills can stay in the regions can, not just in construction but also in airline maintenance.

Other measures can be taken in respect of Ireland West Airport Knock, given the facility it is and the size of its runway. Creating an international cargo hubs is one example, and the space, runway and will to do so are there. If Government support is put in place to develop such a hub in the Covid recovery plan, the airport and management have consistently shown their ability to deliver on Government priorities and will do so on this occasion.

This would also be an opportunity to properly develop the western rail corridor, from Athenry to Claremorris and up to Sligo, by developing a rail connection to Ireland West Airport and connecting the western rail corridor to Shannon Airport. Linking our two airports on the Wild Atlantic Way and the Atlantic economic corridor by rail would enhance their attractiveness as destinations for inward and outward journeys and enhance the attractiveness of the western rail corridor project. Notwithstanding the flawed EY and JASPERS reviews, the project is still economically viable and can be the backbone for the regeneration of the western economy. It would also substantially reduce carbon. Linking the corridor to our airports to encourage people to use rail would be a way of doing that.

We can do so much more with the regional airport network, particularly the non-State regional airport network. We can use the innovation and ingenuity which its management have shown in response to tight resources to regrow the network. The priorities have been laid out in the aviation recovery plan.

I know this is difficult. It is intriguing to hear Deputies who were cheerleading and demanding the introduction of quarantine a few months ago now criticising quarantine for the impact it is having on our aviation sector. It was clear that it would have an impact. We are still in a challenging situation regarding the transmissibility of variants and we have to be realistic about that. If the regional airport sector was given a sense that there is a plan for the future or an interest in developing one and that the Government's ambition for the sector matched its own ambition, it would work with the Minister of State to develop and put flesh on that ambition, create jobs and enhance sustainability.

We will get through Covid. International travel will resume. We need to ensure we have the infrastructure in place in our regional airports, such as Ireland West Airport Knock, and staff supports continue. Aviation will take much longer to come out of Covid than other sectors. We need to make sure we have the route promotion and marketing supports the regional airports need to compete with the major State airports on this island and across the world to attract incoming airlines.

We have a fine track record in aircraft leasing. That continues with some of the major international players still operating here on the foundations established many years ago through Guinness Peat Aviation, GPA. We have a fine transport aviation sector in our airlines and regional airport network. We need to get them through this. I am convinced that if the Minister of State and Government show energy, commitment and investment, our regional airports, such as Ireland West Airport, will come through this crisis. No airport on this island has shown an ability to come through a challenge or crisis quite like Ireland West Airport has. It will come through this one. It needs the Government to come through with it and partner it. It needs the Government to have the same level of ambition for the airport that the community, management and staff have for it.

I am disappointed that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is not here. I listened to the debate on “Saturday with Katie Hannon” last Saturday.

I heard the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, whom I greatly respect, speak on behalf of the Government and there were also people from the aviation industry. I heard Michael O'Leary in a phone call to the programme. Like him or lump him, he talks great sense. He just said that, unfortunately, the Minister has no plan, no roadmap and is disinterested. He is more concerned with pushing and forcing through his utopian green agenda. We saw that last night.

I wish no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. I want to ask her about the wonderful Aer Lingus pilots we met outside week after week. I salute the pilots and staff of Ryanair, Stobart Air and iarSheanadóir Pádraig Ó Céidigh, who started the airline. Our country is being ravaged. We were meant to be ravaged by a plague but now we are being ravaged by Dr. Holohan and his cabal, and the Government is standing idly by. Those in government are like bystanders – shamefully innocent bystanders. One would think they were asleep. They are in some kind of a trance.

One person is too many to be sick in hospital but we had 67 patients in hospital on Monday, supposedly with Covid, 23 of whom were in ICU. I wish them all a happy recovery. I remember being at the first meetings in Government Buildings and we were all shocked and frightened when we were told about the doomsday situation. I salute everybody who worked on it. I sympathise with anyone who lost their life or got seriously ill, but now we must get real. What kind of a grip do these people have? Some of them are narcissists. They have terrorised the people for long enough and now they want to browbeat them to hell or to Connacht.

We had a lovely airport in Knock and now that will be destroyed. Shannon has been neglected for decades and Dublin has been confused. More money has been bulldozed into it. Everything is about Dublin. Could we blame people for being conspiracy theorists when they see what is going on? Educated people are looking on and they see NPHET running the country. Now, the Climate Change Advisory Council is going to make decisions, advise the Minister on decisions and bypass this House. Why are we paying €27,000 a day for this building or maintaining Dáil Éireann that the people of 1916 and the period 1921-1923 fought for, who devised the first Constitution, when it is being trodden on? What is going on here?

We are so proud of our green Aer Lingus aeroplanes and the company's gallant staff. I listened to many of them on air with Deputy McNamara and others here on Zoom calls literally telling us that they moved from Dublin back to the country. They have been living there for 20 years but they are now being forced back to hell or to go anywhere they like. We have a Minister for Transport who is not interested in their jobs. He is not interested in the economy recovering. The IMF is saying that it will cost €20 billion per annum to pay for what we put through last night, which was forced through without debate. Where are we going to get the money to help the aviation industry and all the associated industries recover? God be good to Pat The Cope Gallagher, the former Leas-Cheann Comhairle. He is alive and well and kicking. He always used, and boasted about, the aeroplanes to Donegal and the connectivity with Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Knock and anyplace else. Those people are entitled to that modicum of service but, above all, we are entitled to have the economy recover. There is no sign of it recovering because insurance companies are not paying out to anybody, the banks are not loaning any money and we have all the cabals with regulators and everybody else who are just letting things drift along.

Nobody is forced to be accountable. We need an international investigation into the handling of Covid in Ireland, not another cloak-and-dagger session here now. We need independent people from abroad to come in. That is what it takes. We must have it, but I do not know how we are going to get it. We must have it to get honesty, answers and information on how people were mistreated and how all the people were literally slaughtered in nursing homes and hospitals where they picked up Covid. It is a shocking indictment. It is still going on 15 months later and there is no sign of the restrictions being lifted or changed. We need accountability. I do not know how we are going to get it, but we need nothing short of an international investigation on the handling of it. Medical people have phoned me demanding that because of what is going on and the intimidation of anyone that speaks out or asks a question. It is said they are all conspiracy theorists and they are not wearing the green jersey. The Minister for Transport is not wearing the green jersey. The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Cabinet are not wearing the green jersey. Neither is the Minister of State. She is not wearing the green jersey. Let our people live. Open up the country and let us do what we are best at doing: entertaining people who come to visit us and go to places like Kerry and west Cork. The runway at Cork Airport will be repaired now but they could not do it when Covid was there.

I thank the Deputy. Jersey or no jersey, he has come to the end.

It is nothing short of a disgrace.

The next speakers are Deputy McNamara and Deputy Pringle, who are sharing five minutes.

I was taken aback by the Minister of State's introductory remarks, particularly when she stated she wanted to introduce an antigen testing pilot study at the very least but the advice she obtained was that it was not possible, in accordance with WHO guidelines. I have no doubt of the veracity of what the Minister of State said to the House, but I have a lot of questions about the advice she is receiving. I want to bring a couple of documents to her attention. The first is the regulation that has been introduced with regard to the so-called digital green certificate. I refer to Regulation (EU) 2021/935 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 June. The preamble specifically refers to antigen testing. Recital 37 states:

As the pandemic has progressed, a new generation of faster and cheaper tests has become available on the Union market, the so-called rapid antigen tests, which detect the presence of viral proteins (antigens) to detect an ongoing SARS-CoV-2 infection. Commission Recommendation (EU) 2020/1743 (12) sets out guidance for Member States regarding the use of such rapid antigen tests.

Recital 38 states:

The Council Recommendation of 21 January 2021 (13) sets out a common framework for the use and validation of rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results in the Union and provides for the development of a common list of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests.

Recital 40 states:

To ensure the reliability of the test result, only the results of NAAT tests and rapid antigen tests featured in the list established on the basis of the Council Recommendation of 21 January 2021 should be eligible for a test certificate”, in other words, a green certificate.

It is interesting that there is no differentiation at all between PCR testing and rapid antigen testing. Recital 41 states:

The use of rapid antigen tests would serve to facilitate the issuance of test certificates on an affordable basis. Universal, timely and affordable access to COVID-19 vaccines and tests for SARS-CoV-2 infection, which form the basis for the issuance of the certificates making up the EU Digital COVID Certificate, is crucial in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Deputies sharing have two and a half minutes each.

-----those advising the Minister of State are right or the rest of the European Union is right.

There are only two minutes left.

I will leave it with the Minister of State. I will give her the documents.

As the Minister of State is aware, Stobart Air ceased trading at the weekend. The 480 staff learned of the closure and liquidation of the company on Saturday morning and flights were halted immediately. On Monday, The Irish Times reported that Nordica, the Estonian state-owned airline, offered to take on the Kerry-Dublin route. Connectivity from Donegal is needed for work, tourism and medical appointments. The airport there is a vital piece of infrastructure and is now sitting fully equipped but unused. The Department knew that regional airports were in trouble with reduced passenger numbers but also that they remain vitally important for connectivity, but nothing was done up to the weekend. Talks with replacement airlines were not accelerated and contingency plans were not put in place to ensure that there would be no break in service. I am pleased to see that the Government, through the Department, has acted. That is welcome. The important issue now is not to lose the momentum.

The Minister of State stated in response to a Topical Issue debate on Tuesday night that work is under way in the Department on the PSO air services from Dublin to Donegal to launch an emergency procurement process to try to restore air services to these vital regional routes as soon as possible. The Department plans to issue a request for quotes directly to airlines in the coming days in accordance with applicable EU rules on air service public service obligations. It is anticipated that the emergency procurement process will be completed by early July, with a view to services being recommenced by the new operator or operators as soon as possible thereafter. The new contract will be subject to the maximum term of seven months and will operate until EU law. I also welcome the fact that while the emergency contract is going to be put in place the long-term service must be put in place as well, and the processes will run parallel to each other. I commend the Minister of State on the fair play in that regard. We must ensure that the service is going to be delivered in a timely manner.

I note the Minister of State stated earlier that she was working to have the services in place by 19 July, when international travel returns. Is that the timeframe she views for having this actually completed and services re-established in Donegal Airport? It is going to be vital for the citizens of Donegal to make sure that is available.

I thank the Deputies for contributing to this debate. I fully understand and appreciate the level of concern raised by all Deputies regarding connectivity to our regions, the pressure that those in the aviation sector are under and the impact on all of those who have lost their jobs. I can assure all of those involved in the sector that the Government is fully committed to helping the sector get back on its feet. There will be no cliff edge in the horizontal supports that have been available from the start of the pandemic to this industry. The Government will continue to monitor and review the direct supports to the airports and any further supports that may be considered necessary, as we have acknowledged in the economic recovery plan. I recognise also the importance of providing clarity on the extent and duration of the supports beyond 2021. In this context, the Government will continue to monitor and consider what further supports may be needed to help all regional airports, including Shannon and Cork, as part of the upcoming Estimates process.

A recent report from the Central Bank on Covid-19 and the public finances in Ireland outlined that the fiscal support package introduced in Ireland was large in a euro area context, with the increase in primary Government spending in Ireland the second highest in the euro area in the first three quarters of last year. The report found that the fiscal measures introduced have mitigated the impact of the pandemic on households, firms and the broader economy. This supports the Government’s policy of providing horizontal financial supports with a view to mitigating the impact of the pandemic on the broader economy. The Government is confident that this strategy will facilitate a speedy recovery of all sectors, including aviation, as soon as restrictions are lifted. As I mentioned earlier, the programme for Government acknowledges the value of aviation in supporting economic development, international connectivity and tourism via our airports. Getting international travel back up and running is vital for the continued economic well-being of this country and will continue to be a priority for me and this Government.

I hear what Deputies have said in regard to antigen testing. As I said in my opening statement, I and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will continue to engage at every level across government to ensure that all options in regard to testing are considered which strike the right balance between protecting public health and protecting our economy. We will continue to be guided by the Department of Health and NPHET in regard to Covid-19 testing and how it might be used in settings, including in regard to international travel.

I assure Deputies that the Government is committed to supporting the regions and regional connectivity, and that is why we have moved quickly to seek to reinstate these services lost to Donegal and Kerry, about which I share the concerns of Deputies, as well as committing to renewing the PSO services on these routes under a new contract for up to a further four years. The funding that has been made available to these airports in 2021 is a clear indication of the importance the Government attaches to airports being well-positioned to weather the current crisis for the recovery and growth into the future. It is worth noting that the capital funding of €900,000 to Donegal Airport, €2.2 million to Knock Airport and €1.7 million to Kerry Airport, which I announced on 19 April under the regional airports programme, represented funding of 100% of all eligible projects submitted by airports this year. In addition, I have asked airports to give further consideration to projects with a sustainability focus, which will help expedite airports’ efforts to reduce emissions in line with the goal to move towards carbon neutrality. These additional projects submitted are currently being evaluated by my Department.

I am fully aware of the devastating impact of Covid-19 on Shannon Airport, like all airports in Ireland and around the world, and the importance to the mid-west of having strategic routes from Shannon Airport to London Heathrow, a European hub airport and the US. Prior to the pandemic, Shannon Group was delivering on its commercial mandate, improving profitability and recording strong growth in its commercial property company. While the impact of Covid-19 left Shannon Group in a very vulnerable position, the general Covid-19-related supports put in place by the Government and the specific Government supports targeted at Shannon Airport, which totalled some €30 million in 2020 and 2021, should serve to secure the position of the group and aid its recovery.

In a positive development, I can advise Deputies that Ryanair resumed scheduled air services at Shannon Airport on 1 June, and flights operating include those to the UK, Poland, Lithuania and Spain. Shannon Airport has also advised me that Ryanair services from the airport will increase from July. Regarding the restoration of other routes and the introduction of new air services, I understand the Shannon to London Heathrow route operated by Aer Lingus is expected to be back in September. I also understand Aer Lingus has indicated its intent to come back on transatlantic routes and that Shannon Airport is working hard to get its transatlantic routes back.

Regarding the appointment of a new chair to the Shannon Group, a selection process is under way by the Public Appointments Service, which is expected to bring forward a shortlist of suitable candidates to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for his consideration shortly, and the appointment will be made as soon as possible thereafter.

The programme for Government commitment seeks to ensure that local development plans are developed to stimulate economic activity for those areas that were expecting economic development arising from new fossil fuel infrastructure and, as part of this, consider the potential of the Shannon Estuary in terms of regional economic development across transport and logistics, manufacturing, renewable energy and tourism, and develop a strategy to achieve this potential with support from the Exchequer. The Tánaiste will make an announcement on this programme for government commitment to establish a Shannon Estuary task force over the coming weeks.

I acknowledge that the anticipated closure of the airport in Cork from 12 September to 22 November this year will be highly disruptive for many in the Cork region. However, taking a range of factors into consideration, Cork Airport decided that the optimal approach for completing this project would be to close the airport for ten weeks, rather than risk restricting works to night-time hours only, which would push out the project’s delivery timescale to nine months. The airport has engaged extensively with airline customers and stakeholders on this issue, and the vast majority of those stakeholders were in support of the airport’s approach. Delivering the runway project over the shorter time period is safer in both construction and aeronautical terms, will have the lowest impact on passengers and airlines, and is the most cost-effective option when compared with the alternative night-time closure option. The runway upgrade is a complex and large project that also involves a full renewal of all the airside electrical systems. Given the costs involved, the project falls within the scope of the public spending code and, given the detailed procurement process involved for an infrastructure project of this scale and the requirements under the public spending code, it would not be feasible to bring this project forward any earlier than is currently planned.

While I know this sector has greatly suffered and is continuing to be impacted by Covid-19, I am optimistic that the aviation sector can and will bounce back, and will help to drive Ireland's economic recovery and facilitate a return to growth as restrictions are gradually eased in the coming weeks.