First, I thank the committee for the invitation to the meeting today, where we can speak openly about the issues facing cabin crew in both bases. I will try to be brief, but there is a lot to be said. I welcome the question-and-answer session that will follow my statement.
Fórsa represents over 80,000 members, including approximately 5,000 workers in aviation. In attendance with me today are members of the cabin crew branch, representing over 2,000 cabin crew across all airlines. Cabin crew have endured over 14 months of pay cuts, lay-offs, redundancies and job insecurity. Our members continue to live with high levels of uncertainty and have lived with fear and anxiety as to what the future holds for them. This has put cabin crew and aviation workers and their families under massive strain. For many, the mortgage and other debts incurred over this period will be a burden for years to come. Our members worry that the current employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, is due to end. To date, there has been no announcement of an extension. We all have heard the comments that there will be no cliff edge, but those statements are not enough. The lack of any detail is contributing to our members' fear and anxiety. Fórsa is calling, and has called, for an aviation-specific income support scheme. Failure to provide that will undoubtedly risk further hardship for our members, and more jobs will be lost in the sector.
Throughout the pandemic cabin crew have done everything possible to help their country. They are deemed essential workers and have remained flying essential routes, maintaining vital connectivity. However, it is widely acknowledged that the Irish aviation sector has experienced the largest decline in comparison with anywhere else in Europe. While we acknowledge and appreciate the uncertain times we live in, there is a need for us to do better. What we need now is political leadership, a clear roadmap setting out the return to international travel. We must remain a globally connected open economy where trade and tourism thrive. We have to provide hope to families that they can be reunited with their loved ones living abroad. The continued contradictory statements by various Ministers must stop. What is needed now is clarity. If we fail to provide the certainty required, the aviation sector may never recover.
To date, there has been a lack of commitment from the Government as to how and when travel can resume. At previous meetings of this committee, Fórsa has called for State supports to the industry to be strictly conditional, with no compulsory redundancies or offshoring of services. If these conditions had been in place, that may have offered our members greater protection against the devastating news in Shannon and Cork last week. Fórsa remains greatly concerned that failure to provide the necessary supports as a matter of urgency may mean further announcements across the sector. Some, such as the situation at Shannon, could be irreversible and could contribute to a more general erosion of Ireland’s aviation connectivity.
Our message is clear. We need tangible plans. We are calling on the Government to provide the necessary income supports, provide clear and precise guidance to allow a resumption of international travel, to send a clear message that we are open to key markets and to state that Ireland will adopt the European Commission green digital certificate immediately. We must reopen the common travel area. As we all know, the UK's vaccination rates are well ahead of those in Ireland. We need to develop a clear travel corridor with the US. We also must consider affordable testing, something the committee has recommended. Testing cannot became an impediment to a return to international travel. Finally, we must engage on plans for the future viability of regional airports. I refer particularly to Shannon and Cork in that regard.
Following the announcement by Aer Lingus on 18 May, it is important to put on the record the impact this has had on our members based in Shannon. It will have a devastating impact on cabin crew based in Shannon who, between them, have accumulated more than 2,000 years of service to the company. It will also have a devastating impact on the tourism and hospitality sector, and many have expressed fears about what impact the announcement may have on inward investment in the region. It must be recognised that this is a traumatic time for cabin crew members and their families in Shannon. After giving such long service to Aer Lingus the company has decided to close the base, claiming it is inefficient, having been out of line with the market for many years, is inefficient due to its geographical location and that the scale of the operation has not been enough to deliver cabin crew base efficiencies and the productivity required.
Cabin crew based in Shannon have never been found wanting. They have worked with the company throughout all other crises – the 1990s Gulf War, the post-2009 economic crash, the 11 September 2001 attacks, the volcanic ash cloud in 2010 and the Greenfield and Cahill plans, to name just a few. Over the years they have altered their work practices and demonstrated the required flexibility to ensure the viability of the Shannon base. However, last week Aer Lingus appeared to simply give up rather than develop solutions. Our members feel quite strongly about this. It is not a voluntary option. The company is closing the base and they do not have a choice. They want to work with the company to find solutions in order to protect the base. They are angry with the company and with the Government. They are angry with the company for its decision to close the base without engagement to find solutions, and the manner in which it delivered this devastating news. They are angry with their elected representatives for not ensuring the appropriate protections were in place, such as supports only being provided on the conditions Fórsa has previously outlined. The closure of Shannon illustrates the consequences of failing to include that conditionality.
More than 80 families in the west of Ireland are at risk of losing their careers and their livelihoods. The airline will be at risk of losing extensive experience. The impact this will have on connectivity in the region will affect tourism and hospitality. The effect on local communities and the local economy will be devastating for years to come. We are calling on members of the committee to intervene and to lend their voices to protect this base. It is vital not only for ourselves but for all the west of Ireland, tourism and future investment that we protect this base and ensure it remains in place.
I wish to make some brief statements with regard to Cork. It was with disbelief that we became aware of the decision to close Cork Airport for maintenance of the runway at a time when travel restrictions are likely to ease. The impact of this is that cabin crew in the majority of airlines will be laid off. No certainty has been provided as to what entitlements they may be able to claim, which is causing unnecessary stress. Aer Lingus has also announced further redundancies for the base. We must ensure that protections are in place to prevent a risk to the Cork base also.
We call on the Government to ensure that appropriate income supports are in place. We ask that our members remain on the payroll with the assistance of the necessary income supports while maintenance works are carried out. We need to ensure that the necessary conditionality is attached to any supports provided to any companies. That is no compulsory redundancies and no offshoring of services. We ask that the Government aligns itself to our members in Shannon and Cork to ensure that both bases are protected. We need a plan for the regional airports and we need to ensure that they remain viable into the future.