Issues Affecting the Aviation Sector: Discussion (Resumed)

The purpose of the second part of today's committee meeting is to discuss the issues affecting cabin crew and specifically the recent announcement about the Aer Lingus Shannon and Cork bases. I apologise for the delay in starting this session. We had technical issues during the first session. It is great to have our guests here. I welcome Ms Ashley Connolly, national secretary of Fórsa; Ms Sarah O'Leary, CCM, Cork base; Ms Mary Mulholland, CSM, Shannon base; Mr. Gerry Clarke, CSM, Shannon base; Ms Liz Barry, CSM, Dublin base; and Ms Catriona Jones, CSM, Dublin base. They are all most welcome.

Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identified person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending remotely outside of the Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege. As such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. Witnesses participating in this committee session from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should also be mindful of their domestic law and how it may apply to the evidence they give.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members who join this meeting remotely that they are only allowed to participate in the meeting if they are physically located in the Leinster House campus. In this regard, I also ask members who are participating to confirm, prior to making a contribution to the meeting, that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.

This is an important session and it is a matter on which we are strongly focused. I invite Ms Connolly to make her opening statement. She has five minutes. We are putting limitations on the time because we want ensure we get as many contributions from members and witnesses as possible.

Ms Ashley Connolly

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.

Quite a number of members wish to comment but, unfortunately, we must finish at 1.35 p.m. at the latest. We have no choice in that because of Covid restrictions. I ask members to work in a collective way and do the best for the workers. I ask Members to confine their comments and answers to two minutes. I regret that this is the situation but it was more important to have Fórsa and the cabin crew members in here today due to the urgency of the situation. The first slot belongs to Fianna Fáil and Deputy Cathal Crowe has two minutes.

I welcome all of the witnesses. I have engaged with many of them recently and in the past months.

Many factors have got us to this point with Covid being number one. There is also mandatory hotel quarantine, which was necessary during very high levels of Covid but it certainly has not helped in recent weeks. Lastly, there is the decision by Aer Lingus.

The Aer Lingus decision to close its Shannon base on the eve of the return of international travel can only be summed up as Aer Lingus taking the taxpayer for a ride because it has availed hugely of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. I have a copy of a redacted Aer Lingus cabin crew contract with me. It very clearly states that his or her contract is to the airline not to the Shannon base yet Aer Lingus whether it has been a temporary lay-off or base closure it has cherrypicked and gone after Shannon.

I have a question for Ms Mary Mulholland and Mr. Gerry Clarke from the Shannon base. Many people initially interpreted the talk of inefficiency as a dig at Shannon Airport corporate. I believe that it is a dig at Aer Lingus's workforce and loyal employees who stood by the company for many years. The fact remains that if one took up employment with Aer Lingus 15 months ago in Dublin then one is still employed. However, if one has worked with Aer Lingus for 30 years at Shannon then the attitude is "good luck", which has pretty much been the attitude to date. What do Ms Mulholland and Mr. Clarke understand the term "inefficient" to mean? Is ageism involved? Does it relate to the payroll? Does it relate to pay and conditions at the Shannon base? Many things could be held culpable but we want to get to the bottom of the issue today. From an industrial relations point of view, Shannon has been singled out. The crisis has been used as an excuse to carry out what Aer Lingus has wanted to do for a very long time and that is to slowly withdraw from Shannon. Whatever we do as a Government and any supports that we provide from here on must be conditional on certain strings attached quid pro quo in terms of support for Shannon, its workers and its routes. What does inefficient mean from the point of view of the cabin crew in Shannon?

Ms Mary Mulholland

I thank the Deputy for his questions and I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak. As I am attending remotely I am not as protected as the rest of the witnesses, and I know that the Chairman noted that aspect in his earlier comments.

Ms Mary Mulholland

Yes, it is a fact that the crew in Shannon are being targeted, which is probably the wrong word to use because it is very specific. The crew who will be made redundant are significantly senior in the company. I am number 82 in the company and the members will all know how many people are in the company. The most experienced people with the longest service, the most loyal and the ones who have put their shoulder to the wheel so far and rolled up their sleeves, as Ms Connolly said earlier countless times are the ones who are being targeted in this position.

Mr. Gerry Clarke

I thank the Deputy for his questions and I thank the Chairman for the chance to speak today.

Ms Mulholland has alluded to the 81 employees with long service ranging from 20 to 34 years and that is the only inefficiency that Aer Lingus is targeting but it is not one. People should remember that in 2013-2014 we introduced the 757 aircraft, which made us right sized and efficient. It was the right-sized aircraft that had high load factors and was in service until 2019. From 2019 onwards, we had the A321 Neo that had even further fuel efficiency of anything up to 25% on a round trip to Boston or New York.

The targeting of the base has been gone on for a long time. When a crisis happens Shannon is targeted by the company, unfortunately, and we never know the reason. We have become efficient.

For the mid-west region, €3.8 billion was the economic impact in 2019 and that must mean something to the Government. It should have meant something to Aer Lingus but it seems that it did not, which means that the company is not in tune with the balanced regional development of this country. The revenue means the base has the highest economic percentage impact per passenger coming through the airport. From the perspective of the cabin crew, this aspect should be a very important point for the retention of the cabin crew base.

The national planning framework states that Galway and Limerick should have a population growth of up to 50% up to 2040. That is not going to happen. Regardless of Aer Lingus saying that it will operate out of Shannon, it will not be without a cabin crew basis so one cannot plan a viable operation that will see a decent level of economic activity because, more than likely, there will not be early morning flights and there will be no arrivals in the evening.

In terms of the transatlantic sector, if this issue is not rectified then the mid-west region is going to crumble and there is a severe possibility that the US Customs and Border Protection, CBP, in Shannon will close down and Shannon will become like a mothball thus making it completely unattractive for anybody to fly into. This issue is a huge concern.

On behalf of the cabin crew and their families, I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak.

It is a long-established principle of last in, first out in any company.

Deputy, we are all working together on this issue but I am very conscious of time. We can follow up on the matter but I am conscious of the time and I fully appreciate how frustrated everyone must feel. Deputy Carey has two minutes.

A really serious situation has developed in Shannon and I thank Ms Connolly for her presentation. We, as a committee, have raised the aviation sector at every opportunity with the powers that be in the Government and continue to do so. I raised this issue with the Taoiseach on the floor of the Dáil today again and raised the specific case of the cabin crew in Shannon. The decision has been made under the cover of Covid and it needs to be reversed. Without doubt the longest serving and most loyal people in the company are being targeted. We have engaged with the cabin crew. I know many of them personally so I know the care and dedication that they have put in over the years. It is a sad indictment of Aer Lingus that it would target the most loyal and hardest working people in the company.

I seek an explanation of the following. The Neo aircraft brought a new opportunity for Shannon, which was recognised across the company. The cabin crew is the same. Yet Aer Lingus has mentioned in its statement that the cabin crew has been out of line for a long time, was inefficient and was not working. The decision has been made at a time when the reopening plan for aviation is due to be announced next Friday. I strongly believe that Aer Lingus has used this opportunity to target Shannon yet again. What is Mr. Clarke's view on that?

Mr. Gerry Clarke

As I mentioned previously, the NEO has up to 25% greater fuel efficiency compared with the 757, which is the equivalent of up to 12 tonnes of fuel. I will not go into fuel hedging issues now but it is very important to note that the efficiencies are based on data from 2013 onwards. In Shannon, we had a situation where there were routes to Malaga and Faro but we were not using them because we were told there were not enough crew members. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, we were supposed to do Barcelona and Paris but were told that crews from other bases were needed for those routes because we did not have enough crew. I do not know where the inefficiencies are coming from, given the fact that the operation did not allow us to fulfil the full schedule in 2019. We had to be supplemented from the other bases. I do not know where the inefficiencies are coming from and to me, that still has to be proven.

This committee has been asked to do a number of things. We have been asked to call for the base to be protected, for jobs to be maintained, for the decision to be reversed and for no redundancies or offshoring to happen. This is something we should do and I support that proposal.

The Deputy can take it that will be done.

I have a question for Ms Connolly and I ask her to respond from the point of view of Cork, Shannon and Dublin. My sense of it is that some of this is, at the very least, strategic. Previous contributors suggested that this is a strategy on the part of the company which is possibly using Covid-19 as a cover. Reference was also made to the extent of State supports. What does the future hold in terms of the prospect of offshoring? Is it happening already or is the threat of it there? In terms of the supports that are in place, there is a concern that there will be a cliff edge. In terms of short-time work supports, for example, a number of cabin crew have already contacted me because they have moved over to jobseeker's allowance. These are people who have liabilities. I ask Ms Connolly to give us a sense of the concerns of workers and the future direction of travel for Aer Lingus in particular.

Ms Ashley Connolly

I thank the Deputy and will try to answer both elements of his question. First, offshoring is a real risk. Aircraft can be moved to any base and airlines will move their aircraft to more profitable bases with less stringent restrictions. Offshoring is a very real risk. We are seeing bases opening up but we are very concerned about what travel in Ireland will look like in the future. Will we be able to maintain the routes we currently have, never mind expand? In pre-Covid times we were hearing statements to the effect that Ireland will be an island at the centre of the globe but now we will be lucky to maintain what we have. There is much talk about the need for FDI but we will shut off half of Ireland if the bases at Cork and Shannon close. What will happen then? Everything will become more centralised in the east, which is not what anybody wants to see happening.

I welcome the Deputy's question on income supports. Every day I deal with cabin crew members who are extremely worried. They are trying to engage with their banks and to address their own personal outgoings. Some have children doing their leaving certificate this year and they do not know if they will be able to afford the college registration fees that are due in September. To put it in perspective, in March 2020, people were earning 100% of their salaries but, since then, their earnings have ranged from 30% to 60%, depending on their base location. Imagine losing 50% of one's income for that length of time, with no timeline for when one will recover that income. How is one supposed to plan? How can one's family be secure? People are making very harsh decisions every day. There is an obligation on the Government to put income supports in place and in doing so, to underline the fact that such supports are contingent on employment being protected, with no compulsory redundancies. Then we could actually ensure, through engagement, that our members in Cork would not have to be laid off but could remain on the payroll with the use of these supports. The issue is the lack of certainty. I cannot reassure my members who are asking what they will be earning on 1 July. The company cannot reassure them either because it does not know what supports will be in place on 1 July, which is only 30 days from now.

I will begin by confirming that I am within the Leinster House complex. I thank the witnesses for attending and for providing us with an important opportunity to discuss the issues facing cabin crew and others working in aviation. I have been very clear about my position on these issues and on what we need to do. Very important decisions will be made when the Cabinet meets this Friday. The Government needs to carefully consider the Ferguson report. Professor Mark Ferguson, the director general of Science Foundation Ireland, produced a phenomenal report on the benefits of antigen testing. If we want to avoid a situation where even more workers are laid off and are left in the unfortunate position of being without a job, then this committee must do everything it can to encourage NPHET and the Government to consider antigen testing so that people can get back to work and those who have lost employment can regain it.

The witnesses have hit the nail on the head in terms of sector-specific supports and it is incredibly important that this is looked at in more detail in the context of aviation. There are very few industries that have been hit as hard as aviation. Many aviation workers are now facing the prospect of losing their jobs. We must ask if it would be beneficial to consider sector-specific supports for aviation workers who will hopefully be back to some degree of normality in a number of months. There would be huge benefits in doing that and I have made that point to the Minister for Finance at every possible opportunity. I agree with the witnesses on that point.

I have one quick question. What is the witnesses' message to Government vis-à-vis its decisions on the reopening of aviation? I am particularly interested in a response from the representative from Fórsa.

Ms Ashley Connolly

Our message is clear. We are asking the Government to send a very clear message, rather than the conflicting messages that it has sent out to date. We want to see the adoption of the EU digital green certificate and we want it to be implemented immediately, from day one. We want discussions to take place on a travel corridor with the USA, a high-value market for international travel. That needs to be done in parallel with the implementation of the European digital green certificate. We also need clarity on the common travel area with the UK. What is the position on that? I accept that public health is an absolute priority for Government. It is also a priority for our members but certainty is needed now. The time for inconsistency and a lack of certainty is past. Jobs are on the line. Decisions must be made, and fast. Otherwise, I will be here again in another few weeks to discuss further bad-news announcements by other airlines.

I confirm I am in Leinster House. I thank our guests for being here. I concur with everything that has been asked by members. We are all supportive and have been working hard to ensure there is an equitable playing field. Our bigger battle is with the management of Aer Lingus, who should not be able to use a pandemic to make widespread changes. To be fair to the Government, Ms Connolly might note it has agreed to sign up to the digital certificate. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and the Tánaiste have been clear about the common travel area and engagement with the US. We agree completely with Ms Connolly that we need to sign up to the green certificate from the beginning. My only concern, following on from what happened in Shannon, is that the temporary lay-off in Cork will be permanent. I hope we can all work together because we are on the same page. I commend our guests. This committee is very much of the view that we should protect and work with our aviation sector to protect and preserve jobs. I am fully committed to that.

Ms Sarah O'Leary

Cabin crew in Cork are concerned about the lay-offs. At the moment, they are temporary lay-offs for ten weeks but, as we can see from what has happened in Shannon, there are no protections for us at the moment. Nobody has confirmed the lay-offs will only last ten weeks. Nobody has confirmed the pay rate to which we will be returning or on what date we will resume. If these works run over and if anything happens between now and then, there are no protections for us. It has been an extremely worrying time. Over 100 cabin crew are being laid off at this time.

Is it unusual that no date has been given for a return?

Ms Sarah O'Leary

Dates have been given for the works but my concern is these works may not run along the timescale we have been given.

Is it unusual that cabin crew have not been given dates by Aer Lingus? It is important that the crew are given certainty.

Ms Sarah O'Leary

I have not been in a lay-off situation before. This is the first time for me and, as far as I am aware, they have never closed Cork Airport to do runway works in the past. This is a new decision and it is negatively impacting on the base and on me and my colleagues. We are being laid off with no pay. As I say, there is no certainty about what is to come in the winter if there are further lockdowns due to Covid-19, delays due to the works, weather events or anything else. We will then be heading into Christmas. We are paid two weeks in arrears so even if we go back on the roster at the right time, we will not get a pay packet until January. People are putting their children back into school from September to November. They have to pay for books and uniforms. There is already so much pressure on people. As Ms Corcoran said, we have been on reduced pay for 15 months. It has not been a case of staff taking a pay cut for a couple of weeks, we have taken a pay cut for almost 16 months. The effect on all cabin crew at all bases is huge but, as can be seen from the announcement, 81 families in Shannon are now facing into redundancy. They have moved to the next stage and it is very concerning that Cork could be next.

The fundamental point is that Cork could be next. As we have heard, we must be careful of the knock-on effect. That is why it is important that Aer Lingus is held to account.

I will say to Ms O'Leary, Mr. Clarke, Ms Mulholland, Ms Barry and Ms Jones that we will be firmly putting those points to representatives of Aer Lingus when they are before us next Wednesday. Our guests have the committee's full support.

I will not cover the points that have already been raised about the work that needs to be done for job protection and recovery, although they are of vital importance. I will pick up on a point that has not been discussed yet. It relates to the protection of staff who will, I hope, be flying in the not-too-distant future. Will our guests expand on testing for staff and the testing regime that has been provided by the company for the protection of its staff? Have vaccinations been discussed in any way? I imagine an awful lot of the staff, including the cabin crew, are young and among the last on the list for a vaccine through the national roll-out scheme. Given the unique nature of travel and exposure or potential exposure to variants etc., what kind of discussion is taking place between the union, the workers and the company on those issues?

Ms Ashley Connolly

I will allow enough time for my colleagues also to respond. We have sought engagement with the Department of Transport to ensure that a vaccination programme for essential workers is included in the roadmap for travel. We have also spoken to the company about combined lobbying to ensure testing and vaccination are available to the most essential workers. Those workers are at the front line every day in a small, confined space. I will not eat further into the time to reply and I will pass over to my colleague, Ms Barry.

Ms Barry appears to be on mute. We will go first to Ms Jones and come back to Ms Barry.

Ms Catriona Jones

The reality is that cabin crew have been essential workers throughout the pandemic without the protection of vaccination or other protections that can be put in place in a normal workplace. Aircraft cannot be altered in the same way a shop floor or till area can be. You cannot simply put in screens. We have gone to work each day and been exposed, as such. The nature of the regulations that govern workplaces do not, unfortunately, always apply to the aviation sector. It has left us exposed. Many cabin crew do their jobs as a vocation and are passionate about what they do. Many of them do not think twice when they go out there and they know that many people are travelling for essential reasons at the moment. They are travelling for emergencies and deaths, to visit people who are sick and for absolutely essential business reasons. We are conscious of that and want to be there to support people who want to travel.

The Deputy raised an important point. Much of our workforce is quite young. I understand the rationale that is being used to prioritise age during the roll-out of vaccines. However, our workforce is exposed in a way others are not. It would be great to get recognition of that from the vaccination programme. Many of those in our workforce are in their 20s and, as we have known throughout the pandemic, someone of that age is not necessarily immune to the effects of the disease. It is important to us. We want to continue delivering safety in the service about which we are passionate. At the same time, we want the protections we need. We will need those protections more than ever if aviation can take off shortly, as we hope will be the case.

Ms Liz Barry

I echo the sentiments of Ms Jones. As crew, we feel very vulnerable and would like the best protection possible. We very much feel that we need to be as protected as possible. We want to be ensure that rules and regulations around protection for cabin crew are followed. We go into work each day and feel that our full protection must be ensured. That is all I have to say.

Ms Barry's basic point is that if vaccination becomes a key feature with the digital green certificate, cabin crew should also be vaccinated.

Ms Liz Barry

That is absolutely so.

As somebody who represents the Clare constituency, I completely understand the shock and anger that is out there. Many people have said this situation is solely attributable to the pandemic, that this would have happened regardless of anything the Government did and that Aer Lingus' loyalty to Shannon, in particular, and to its workers more generally, leaves a lot to be desired. To what extent do our guests think the policies adopted by the Government, in comparison to those adopted by other countries, contributed to the situation?

If they did not contribute to it that is great but if they did, what can the Government now do to seek to have the decision reversed? I thank Senator Craughwell for that speaking slot.

We all thank Senator Craughwell. I will bring in Ms Connolly to be followed by Ms Clarke and Ms Mulholland. I am conscious we are tight on time but this is an extremely important matter.

Ms Ashley Connolly

I will not take much time. I would make two points. There are significant differences across member states in what other ministerial areas and jurisdictions put in place. For example, there is conditionality attached to state funding or loans and that has protected employment. In the case of one airline within the International Airlines, IAG, group the respective country enforced conditionality on the funding that was made available.

Which airline was that?

Ms Ashley Connolly

It was a Spanish airline. There is also conditionality attached in Portugal, but conditionality is also attached in other jurisdictions. I would also like to state we are very aware of the State supports in place, and I would have spoken of those at previous meetings of the committee, and we would make reference to those. I would have provided information to all the Ministers on the German scheme and the 80% of pay that is ensured at all levels. There are better supports across the region in the other European member states. I will pass over to Ms Mulholland and Mr. Clarke, as I do not want to eat into the time.

I will bring in Mr. Clarke and then Ms Mulholland to respond on the regional dimension.

Mr. Gerry Clarke

I will speak from the perspective of the situation in Shannon. Following on from what Ms Connolly said, if we had introduced a proper support model for aviation workers, especially airline workers, who have been even more affected than workers in some of the other aviation areas, and had something like the German model, Aer Lingus might not have to make the decision it made last week. It would have been able possibly to make a decision to keep us in receipt of supports and on the payroll and we would have been able to pay our mortgages, be part of society and have some standard of living but we have no such standard now. We are living on the pandemic unemployment payment and have to go to the banks all the time to see if we can have a chat with them. Even if we get to have a chat, the banks will add on the extra expense to our mortgages. In response to Deputy McNamara's question, we have been too slow to act and, as a result, Shannon cabin crew could potentially lose their jobs.

Ms Mary Mulholland

I thank Deputy McNamara for raising this point which I had my hand raised to make. Rather than attributing blame to somebody for our being in this position, I want the members to advocate on our behalf to get us out of this position. In doing so, they will take the pressure off the Government. It might seem shortsighted to say only 83 families will be discommoded slightly by losing their jobs. I have three sons. I am not just one person affected by this. When I lose my job I will become a different drain on the Irish economy. I have a family of five and am only one of 83 people who have families dependent upon them. They will very quickly become dependent upon the State. That is what is happening. A total of 83 families is affected by this, not to mention the western region. We are being shortsighted in only thinking about now; we should be looking at the bounce back in the industry. I have been around for a million bounce backs. I have seen how they come. They are swift. When there is a bounce back housewives go shopping to New York, families go to Eurodisney and families finally has enough money to take their children abroad, for example, to the Wet and Wild water park in Orlando. When that bounce back comes it will be too late for me. I will be gone and my job in the west will be lost. My contribution to the community in the west will be gone. It will be too late for me. I ask the committee to advocate on my behalf and on behalf of my other 82 fantastic colleagues in Shannon who have worked very hard for the last number of years for this good company.

I thank Ms Mulholland for that. I will move on to Senator Dooley who has two minutes.

To follow on from Ms Mulholland's last point, this is about the workers in the company and the region. I could spend an hour giving out about Aer Lingus and its approach to Shannon over the years. I am deeply frustrated with its activities but that would be a pointless waste of the few minutes I have. I am equally frustrated with the Government, of which the party I am a member of is part. I was frustrated with the mandatory hotel quarantine, the focus on non-essential travel and I continue to be frustrated with the lack of a coherent plan that gives certainty to airlines. I am also frustrated that for some time now the lesson of the separation of Shannon from the national aviation authority has not been addressed. With their intimate knowledge of the region and the difficulties Aer Lingus and other airlines have had, do Mr Clarke and Ms Mulholland think it is time for bringing the three State airports together and forgetting the notion of airports competing against each other? Should they instead work effectively as a block and let the airports challenge the airlines to ensure they meet the critical regional development we desperately need? If we leave Dublin Airport to compete with Shannon Airport during this recovery phase, one does not need to be a Mensa scientist to know full well – and this is not being negative towards Dublin – they will consolidate their activities because of the significant costs and where the population resides. In addition to the Government needing to come forward with a plan, we should link whatever future moneys are provided to Aer Lingus to the retention of the base and of the employees, thereby ensuring Ms Mulholland and her 82 colleagues will not lose their jobs. My questions are simple. Does the Government need to link future supports to the airline to maintaining those regional bases and employees outside the east coast? Do they think it is time for the re-establishment of a national aviation authority or a national airport authority where the three airports are managed under the one umbrella?

I will bring in Mr. Clarke and then Ms Mulholland.

Mr. Gerry Clarke

The way I see it is that, irrespective of whether they are all linked, there is a fundamental problem. I will respond from the perspective of Shannon Airport. Regardless of how much money is put into the airport, it will not attract the airlines. That has been proven straightaway. Even though moneys have been given to Shannon Airport and I am not denying that, it still does not attract airlines to the region. There is only one way that should and can happen. That is with airline aid under EU state aid. A section of the Act allows for airline aid. Airlines such as Aer Lingus should be incentivised to fly routes out of Shannon Airport, which would have a major economic impact on the base and the region. The more people who come through the airport, the more footfall there is and the more jobs are created. The way to go is to have airline aid and incentivise the airlines to fly out of Shannon Airport. If we do not go down that road soon all the money, similar to the water leaking from pipes throughout the country, will leak out somewhere and we will not know where it is. At least if the airline has it, we will know what it is doing with it.

Ms Mary Mulholland

I agree totally with Mr. Clarke's point. I would bring it to an even more basic level.

I would say to Senator Dooley that anybody who has ever travelled to Dublin for the early morning Malaga flight and who has gone to Shannon for an early morning flight will know it is like chalk and cheese. Just before Covid struck us all, in 2019 Dublin Airport was bursting at the seams. It was at capacity and unable to put on any more routes or fly any more aircraft in or out of the airport. It was over capacity with security, immigration and everything else. Our Customs and border protection, CBP, in Shannon was perfectly right-sized for the number of people going through that airport. It was a very easy day to go wherever you needed to be, whether you were a business traveller or somebody going on holidays. I predominantly worked on a Boston flight and the number of businessmen I would have had in my cabin who did not know that Shannon Airport was so close to Galway, Limerick or Kerry would be hard to believe. If they were going golfing in Adare or if they were going to Old Head, they did not know how close Shannon was to these other places and their travel agent booked them by accident into Shannon because the first thing that came up on all the search engines was Dublin. Dublin is not the be all and the end all, and I am not anti-Dublin. There is enough work for everybody. There is enough airspace for everybody. There is enough if the will is there to distribute between the three airports and link the three.

I do not care how the Senator links all of this. I really do not care what language one is using to link it or how we get a foot in the door but time is of the essence. Link it any way the Senators likes. I am behind the Senator every step of the way.

I thank Ms Mulholland. As for myself, I will be quick. We fully agree that any State supports that come to Aer Lingus must be conditional on the retention of the base with the staff and also in terms of the Heathrow and transatlantic connectivity out of Shannon Airport. That is key.

Can I ask two quick questions to both Mr. Gerry Clarke and Ms Mary Mulholland because they are in the Shannon base? If cabin crew staff are based in Shannon or they are not based in Shannon, what are the implications for early morning flights to Heathrow and transatlantic flights?

The cabin crew staff have been on the pandemic unemployment payment only for the past number of months at no cost to Aer Lingus because it was provided as a State support to ensure airlines could come through with their staff intact. As Ms Mulholland said, there will be a recovery but we have to be certain that the infrastructure, including the cabin crew, is still based in Shannon. When they went on the PUP payment, what did Aer Lingus say to them? Did Aer Lingus indicate that this situation that has arisen now about the closure of the base might arise or did the company tell them at the time that they were put on the PUP to ensure they could come through intact as an airline with the staff so that Shannon could resume flights? First, does it make a difference having a cabin crew staff based in Shannon and, second, what did the airline tell them at the time when they went on the PUP payment?

We are fully behind the witnesses. We will bring up their points with Aer Lingus and we will take them up with Government as well. It is just those two quick points. I will go to Mr. Clarke first and then Ms Mulholland. I am conscious of the time. We have to be out of here in two minutes.

Mr. Gerry Clarke

The way I would see it is that if an airline bases aircraft in an airport, it has a cabin crew base. If it does not have a cabin crew base, the aircraft are coming from possibly other destinations, it is difficult to have early morning departures and late evening arrivals. You do not know where the aircraft is coming from and if there are delays, there is such disruption that it becomes unviable. Having a cabin crew base there means that you have a bit of efficiency and control over a good operation.

What did the airline, Aer Lingus, tell Ms Mulholland at the time when staff were put on the PUP payment? Was there any question of a closure of the base or was it, as the payment is intended, a State support to bring the airline through the pandemic with the staff intact?

Ms Mary Mulholland

Initially, as everybody will recall, this was a snowballing effect. We went almost from roster to roster. For the layman, we get our roster maybe two months in advance of when we are to fly. Each two months the roster would come out, or a month sometimes, and then they would be delayed. You would not know whether you were coming back to work or not. We have locks on our roster that tell us when we will be off, when we are due holidays, when we are due into training or when we are due to fly. We never knew, from month to month, whether we were coming back to work or not. That, in itself, as Ms Connolly alluded to earlier, plays on your mind and the mental games that were being played-----

Were staff given any indication by the airline?

Ms Mary Mulholland

No. I am not blaming the airline for this. What I am saying is, because of the snowballing effect of Covid in itself, nobody knew when we were to fly again but at no stage was Shannon being closed. I would have made different decisions about my own life but the PUP payment, as far as we were concerned, was a stopgap. It was a get-out-of-jail free card to keep me and my colleagues going until we rode out this storm. As there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, the rug was pulled out from under us.

I thank everyone for attending today's meeting and engaging with the committee, in particular, Ms Ashley Connolly, Fórsa national secretary; from the Shannon base, Ms Mary Mulholland and Mr. Gerry Clarke; from the Cork base, Ms Sarah O'Leary of the cabin crew, and Ms Liz Barry and Ms Catriona Jones from the Dublin base.

Aer Lingus will be in before us next Wednesday. We will be putting those points to Aer Lingus and will take them up with Government. We are very supportive. We want to retain the base and the vital staff in Shannon, and equally, in Cork, and we are conscious of Dublin. This is a matter we will continue to come back to. What we want to ensure here is that when the international aviation takes off - we would like to see it happening sooner rather than later in Ireland with the digital green certificate - we have all these experienced staff in play to ensure they can continue that vital role they play in bringing business people and tourists in and out of Ireland. I thank all the witnesses very much for today. Apologies for being quick on time but it was important we had them here today.

The next meeting of the joint committee will be a private meeting at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 June 2021.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.47 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 June 2021.