Issues Affecting the Aviation Sector: Discussion

I welcome Mr. Filip Cornelis, director of the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission and, from the Irish Aviation Authority, Mr. Niall Connors, assistant director of the safety regulation division, and Mr. Paul Brandon, head of corporate affairs.

I draw the attention of our guests to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. If, however, they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Our guests should note that by giving evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts, the constitutional protections afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, the evidence given is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from another jurisdiction should also be mindful of their domestic statutory regime. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter, they must respect that direction. 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 invite Mr. Cornelis to make his opening statement.

Mr. Filip Cornelis

I thank the Chairman and the committee for inviting the European Commission to provide information on the circumstances facing the aviation sector in the context of Covid-19. We have seen in Europe, including Ireland, and throughout the world that since the outbreak of the pandemic, transport has suffered a dramatic reduction in traffic. Aviation, particularly international aviation, was hit first and very hard. I might quote a few figures for Europe. The number of flights contracted by almost 90% in April, while in June, it remained 80% below the levels of 2019. Over the summer, we recorded a slight but brief recovery, and even then, the number of flights in Europe did not reach more than 50% of last year's traffic levels in August.

Since August, there has again been an aggravation of the circumstances. In its most recent comprehensive assessment, Eurocontrol reported a 57% reduction in the number of flights year on year for the month of October and expects it to deteriorate further. I recommend to the committee the information provided by Eurocontrol, which is very helpful for policymakers throughout Europe. Broadly speaking, traffic, as we enter the final phase of the year, will be less than half that of last year. In terms of the number of passengers travelling, we are in the order of only one quarter of the normal number of passengers.

This has a significant impact on the performance of the sector. It is estimated that the losses, or the combined revenue forgone by airlines, airports and air navigation service providers, will be of the order of €100 billion this year. These figures are dramatic but do not reflect the total impact. We should add the impact on related sectors, such as aircraft manufacturing and maintenance, and those such as tourism that depend on air travel. It is clear that the crisis is completely dwarfing downturns of the past that resulted from external shocks, whether 9/11, the severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, epidemic or the 2008 financial crisis. The low traffic we have been experiencing for the better part of this year is clearly not sustainable, despite the efforts to cut costs in the sector. We can expect, if circumstances continue, market exits, redundancies and job losses to multiply as airlines and airports scale back to survive this crisis.

This is a sector that employs, directly and indirectly, some 12 million people in Europe and is contributing more than €700 billion to European GDP, not to mention its impact on social and economic cohesion, in the broader sense of that word, throughout the EU.

I wish to outline the response we have tried to give at the European Commission and EU level. First, immediately after the start of the outbreak, we took a number of steps to ensure regulatory relief for the aviation sector and address key issues, including the introduction of a waiver of the use-it-or-lose-it rule for airport slots. We published guidelines on air cargo in order to maintain the flow of cargo by air. We published guidelines on passenger rights and guidance on the possibility of introducing temporary public service obligations. Most recently, we have extended the waiver of the airport slot use-it-or-lose-it rule for the winter season 2020-21. We also worked with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, to devise an aviation health and safety protocol. This protocol, which was jointly published by the two agencies in May 2020, set out measures to ensure the health and safety of passengers and crew during all stages of an air journey. Both passengers and the industry, as well as many member states, have welcomed and implemented those guidelines. Some member states have even made them mandatory. The health and safety protocol will be updated as we go forward on the basis of experience of, and increasing insight into, the nature of transmission of the coronavirus.

We have also put in place a temporary framework for state aid to assist member states to support businesses, particularly formerly healthy businesses, to weather the storm. This framework has been used by a number of member states to provide targeted support to a significant number of airlines, including the Lufthansa Group, Air France-KLM, EasyJet and others, to airports in Germany, Belgium and other member states, and to promote connectivity measures such as the scheme put in place by Cyprus. Taking into account the prolongation of the crisis, the state aid temporary framework has just been extended until the middle of next year. In addition, the provisions on recapitalisation aid are extended until September next year. The Commission continues to constantly review the situation and adapt measures where needed going forward.

In regard to travel within and outside the EU, the Commission has advocated a harmonised easing of border restrictions following the first wave of lockdowns in the spring. Back in June, we initiated a harmonised easing of border restrictions between member states in order to restore freedom of movement within the EU, as much as possible, while continuing to protect public health. This remains a top priority for the Commission and we are working continuously with member states and the German Presidency to co-ordinate action on travel within the EU. On 13 October, the European Council adopted a recommendation on a co-ordinated approach to the restriction of freedom of movement in response to Covid-19. This was based on a Commission proposal that sought to address some of the confusion that was caused by different systems and different approaches by member states to classifying regions in Europe, a confusion which has contributed, in turn, to a reduction in travel, including air travel, within Europe.

In the case of travel outside Europe, following a proposal from the Commission before the summer, the Council adopted a recommendation on the gradual lifting of temporary restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU. Based on the criteria and conditions set out in that recommendation, which was adopted on 30 June, member states were advised to gradually lift travel restrictions at external borders for residents of specified third countries, the list of which is regularly updated. The latest update was done on 22 October.

Testing of travellers is a topic that has been very much under attention in recent weeks. On 18 September, the Commission published a set of recommendations for a common approach to Covid-19 testing in the EU. The recommendations set out concrete actions to support member states in the planning and organisation of testing efforts during different stages of the pandemic and mapping out the different testing regimes currently in place and their underlying criteria. I will highlight the recommendations that are of particular relevance to aviation. Any travel restrictions put in place must be well co-ordinated among countries, proportionate, non-discriminatory and should focus on what is necessary for the protection of public health. Where tests are required for travellers wishing to cross national borders, this should be seen as a special category of testing that, because it involves cross-border travel, requires agreement on common criteria and the necessary preconditions and tools needed for mutual recognition of test results. To prevent the reintroduction of the virus into countries or subnational regions that have achieved a sustained control of Covid-19, consideration may be given to targeted testing and follow-up of individuals coming from other areas within the same country or other countries that have higher transmission levels. Where countries decide to implement travel restrictions, it is recommended that testing of symptomatic travellers directly upon their return be a priority. The recommendations were endorsed by the EU Health Security Committee, which brings member states together in an attempt to streamline national approaches and ensure more coherent Covid-19 testing strategies across the EU, including those applying to travellers.

Freedom of movement and the single aviation market are key achievements of European integration. They have brought us closer together as Europeans and have driven forward the European economy. We believe that restoring full freedom of movement can be done while, at the same time, protecting public health. Clearly, a more co-ordinated approach is needed among EU member states while also respecting that public health remains a national policy competence. There is no contradiction between the two. To achieve our objective of restoring freedom of movement, we must support health and safety measures in the aviation sector through effective mitigating measures that are science-based, risk-based and limited to what is strictly necessary for containing the pandemic. The Commission will continue to advocate strongly for those principles to be at the heart of a co-ordinated response to Covid-19. I thank the committee for inviting me to this exchange of views and I look forward to our discussion.

I thank Mr. Cornelis for his opening statement. Before continuing, I ask that anybody with a device on which messages are coming through would put the device on silent mode.

There are seven to eight minutes remaining for Mr. Connors and Mr. Brandon of the Irish Aviation Authority to make their opening statement. They have provided the committee with a lengthy document and they might perhaps summarise the main points it contains. I invite Mr. Brandon to address the committee.

Mr. Paul Brandon

I will focus on the salient points in our document. I thank the Chairman and members for inviting us to present to the committee today. I begin by conveying apologies from our CEO, Mr. Peter Kearney, who cannot be with us today. My colleague, Mr. Connors, who is acting director of the safety regulatory division, and I will be happy to take any questions from members.

For those members who are not familiar with the role of the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, essentially we have three key roles. First, we are the national aviation safety regulator and safety is the IAA's number one priority in all aspects of our business. Second, we are responsible for the oversight of security in the Irish aviation industry and we oversee security compliance and security standards for all aviation installations and facilities. Third, we provide air navigation services and air traffic management services in Irish airspace and at the State airports at Dublin, Cork and Shannon. We also manage aeronautical communications on the north Atlantic Ocean. We also provide the world's first global emergency aircraft location and emergency response tracking service, the Aireon ALERT service, based at our centre in Ballygirreen, County Clare.

The IAA employs just over 700 people at various locations around the country and, as with all aviation businesses, Covid-19 has hit us extremely hard. Our revenues are almost all directly related to aircraft volumes in Irish airspace. With the sudden and dramatic decline in aircraft volumes this year, we are keeping our business afloat through a combination of significant cost containment measures and utilising reserves that we built up in better times.

Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to provide our essential services in a safe and efficient manner, keeping Ireland's skies open for vital connectivity, including the delivery of medical and personal protective equipment, PPE. From a regulatory perspective, we have also provided appropriate alleviations to support the efficient and safe return to service of the industry.

As Mr. Cornelis said, the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the aviation industry across Europe. There is no way to sugar-coat this issue. To put it in perspective, we are now operating at air traffic levels that we would have seen in the late 1980s. In March and April, we were down to almost zero. That also affects business connectivity. Many routes are either not operating or are operating a skeletal service.

The aviation sector in Europe will record more than €140 billion in lost revenue in 2020, and the position is not looking much more encouraging for 2021. Most experts - I refer here to analysis done by EUROCONTROL - indicate that it will be 2024 or 2025 before the industry recovers.

From an Irish aviation perspective, we managed 38,000 flight movements in September of this year compared with almost 110,000 in September 2019. It is important to also highlight that throughout the pandemic air traffic levels in Ireland have been consistently below levels in the rest of the European network. That is deeply worrying from an economic perspective. Where the rest of Europe has rail and road connectivity, we are dependent on air connectivity as an island nation.

Prior to the pandemic, Ireland's aviation sector was the envy of the world. Europe's largest and most successful airline is based here and we are the largest global hub for aircraft leasing. We have one of Europe's top ten airports and an aviation safety regulatory regime that ranks in the top five globally. We also have responsibility for the important transatlantic flows in and out of Europe. For a nation of our size, this emphasises the importance of the industry to the economy but it also emphasises what we stand to lose at this time.

We all hope that an effective vaccine will be ready soon and, thankfully, there have been some positive stories in the media in recent days. In the absence of a vaccine, however, we have entered a period where it is recognised that, as a society and an economy, we need to learn to live with Covid-19. Living with the virus means we continue to do as many of the things we normally do as a society but, where appropriate, we adapt our behaviours and accept certain restrictions, weighing up the risks attached to the virus. What does that mean in an aviation and travel context? Quite simply, it means there is an effective and harmonised system of travel across Europe, applied equally by all member states, and that pre-departure testing is implemented as soon as possible. That is the ideal solution at this time from an aviation perspective. What these two mechanisms will achieve is straightforward. When making a booking passengers can be sure that the flight will take place and the rules will not change, while passengers and members of the public alike will be reassured that the virus is not circulating through air travel. In other words, if one returns a positive test one does not travel. That is living with the virus in action and it involves fair and simple rules with appropriate mitigation to combat the identified risks of transmitting the virus.

The IAA has worked with the Government and the safety regulators across Europe to implement the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control health safety protocols to which Mr. Cornelis referred. We continue to monitor the effectiveness of those protocols among Irish registered aircraft.

On the EU traffic light system for travel, we have welcomed the Government's intention to adopt the traffic light system agreed at the European Council last week. That is very positive and is a proactive step by Government. While we believe that the system is a key step in the right direction, we do not believe it has gone far enough nor, unfortunately, that it is likely to achieve on its own the levels of EU-wide co-ordination required to provide for a sustainable return for aviation.

The traffic light policy as designed at this time provides no certainty to passengers when making a booking. Member states can apply their own additional restrictions, particularly between orange and red or orange and orange countries, and are only required to provide 24 hours' notice. We should treat the situation dynamically. If air travel were a risk several months ago, we now have protocols, protections and mechanisms in place to allow air travel to operate safely. The EU-wide traffic light system is one of the key pieces of the jigsaw to allow for air travel to return. We need effective EU-wide co-ordination and harmonisation and the traffic light system in its current format does not provide for that.

This is where we believe testing will be an important piece of the jigsaw. It is the missing piece to allow for travel to recommence. In terms of testing at airports, an EU-wide system that replaces quarantine measures with airport pre-departure testing is required. Such a system could allow all passengers or, more appropriately, passengers travelling from a red or an orange country, to be tested on the day or one day in advance of travel. That type of testing strategy would be complemented by the traffic light information associated with each country so that in respect of passengers travelling from a green zone there should be no requirement for testing as, by definition, the incidence of Covid-19 in that country is low.

Those who are part of the aviation sector know there is no such thing as a perfect solution. That is the reason the industry is rooted in robust risk management and mitigation. In our view, testing assesses the risk and mitigates it. It stands to reason, therefore, that testing should form an important part of the overall jigsaw for air travel.

It is our view that the Government's policy should favour a consistent approach to testing across Europe to complement the traffic light system. We believe that a recovery for air travel is not possible without this policy in place. What we are talking about is that passengers would know the requirements based on the traffic light system. Passengers would be tested pre-flight. We would continue to apply the strict procedures on board and the onus would continue to be on passengers to behave responsibly with regard to Covid-19 management at their destination.

Various industry bodies, airlines and airports have called on governments to introduce Covid-19 testing, safely reopen borders and re-establish global connectivity. Governments across Europe are listening and there is now a trend towards recognising that testing will be part of a sustainable reopening. The benefits are clear. First, testing provides assurance around the risk of importing Covid-19 cases. Second, it supports economic activity and connectivity. Third, it would play a key role in taking the aviation industry and the thousands of jobs it supports off life support. We understand that there has been some work in this area between the Department of Transport, the airports and scientific experts. We are speaking from a policy perspective where, from our central role in aviation in Ireland, we can see that if an urgent step such as this one is not taken soon, many parts of the Irish aviation industry will not survive.

The airports representative body and an airline representative body have said that safely reopening borders without quarantine by using a co-ordinated approach to testing would boost the entire economy and offer a lifeline revenue to airlines and airports. We agree with that analysis. Like most aspects of the aviation sector, the true benefit in terms of reopening air travel will only emerge when all countries implement similar testing or recognise testing across Europe.

The traffic light system is a step in the right direction and we welcome the Government's intention to align with the rest of the EU. Pre-departure testing is required to ensure that each country is confident it is not importing Covid-19 cases. Many countries are moving in that direction. Ireland is reliant on aviation more than other European countries and we encourage the Government to take a lead role in this area. Let us not concede to the long-term closure of our borders. Travel can play an important role in restarting the economy post Covid-19. I thank members for their time.

I thank Mr. Brandon. We will now commence with questions and we are joined by Mr. Cornelis by video link. I ask members and witnesses to abide by the seven-minute time limit, which is to include the questions and the answers..

I thank both parties for their important evidence today. Mr. Cornelis will have heard Mr. Brandon of the Irish Aviation Authority talk about the weaknesses in the traffic light system. Perhaps Mr. Cornelis will talk to us, from his vantage point, about how he thinks that might be strengthened or what the likelihood is of getting a more harmonised approach at EU level. There is no point in Ireland moving ahead in a very proactive way with testing and so on if it is not reciprocated at other locations.

Mr. Cornelis also said there is some evidence of some other countries within a European context that provide funding to airports under the public service obligations, PSO, model. Will Mr. Cornelis expand on that? If there is further evidence that could be provided to the committee, perhaps offline at a later stage, it would be helpful to us in our report generally. Does Mr. Cornelis also have more detailed information on the kinds of supports that were provided to airlines in other countries such as loans or the issuance of share capital? Again, that would be helpful to the committee in the preparation of our report.

Mr. Filip Cornelis

On the traffic light system, clearly the final recommendation adopted by the Council fell somewhere short of the original proposal of the Commission. I believe that everybody considers it to be a first step and acknowledges that further work is needed. One example of where further work is under way is that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, are again working together on updating and expanding the health safety guidance from the spring, this time to come up with a testing protocol that could be used in aviation. Of course it will be guidance and not mandatory, but if it is found to be useful by many states, then it can definitely be used in addition to the traffic light system to allow that stability and clarity of rules and mutual recognition that Mr. Brandon correctly referred to. The problem for travel is not only that there are regulatory restrictions but also, clearly, that passengers and the public lack confidence due to the ever-changing rules and the fact that a quarantine is often imposed that defeats the purpose of most air travel.

On the question of funding and public service obligations, we have published guidance that would allow member states to put in place very quickly - in a matter of a week - a public service obligation where it is absolutely essential, for example, to provide essential goods to remote communities. Evidently, there are wider possibilities for public service obligations with proper tender procedure. I will mention one scheme in particular that was put in place by Cyprus. It supports airlines that are willing to reopen routes in a proportional way. Basically, it tries to compensate for the low load factor, which is the low number of passengers onboard those aircraft, and not to overcompensate with public aid. This scheme is also applicable or open to all airlines that wish to make use of it. We believe this is quite an interesting approach to supporting the reopening of routes in a still depressed market. Senator Dooley also referred to loans and equity aid. Clearly there have been cases around the EU where this has been used in smaller or larger amounts for both airlines and airports. I can provide more information to the committee in writing.

I thank Mr. Cornelis.

I thank the witnesses. I will follow on from those questions to Mr. Cornelis. I take on board the point on EASA and the ECDC investigation of testing protocols. Will Mr. Cornelis speak to the existing testing protocols that are in place in European Union member states? There is some discussion in Ireland on the prospect of implementing a testing regime here, whether it be PCR or some other rapid system. I am interested in those countries that have a rapid testing system in place and if they are satisfied that it meets the standards.

With regard to the traffic light system, I note that the maps go down to a subnational level. Will Mr. Cornelis clarify if it is intended that there would be subnational or regional information? In the Nordic states, for example, some areas are red, some amber and some green. Is that going to be the case? Of particular interest to us in Ireland is our land border with the North. What level of consideration has been given to third-party states, for example, engagement with Switzerland or the Governments in London and Belfast? What has been the engagement on the harmonisation of an approach in those areas?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

I thank Deputy O'Rourke. On the existing testing protocols, I am not a medical expert so I will not give any definitive answer. I can tell the Deputy that the work undertaken by EASA and ECDC will include advice on which types of test could be recommended in which circumstances, how many tests, at which phase of the journey, and what risk mitigation can be provided by this or that test, or this or that sequence of tests. I am aware that in a number of member states some airports are providing testing facilities, including rapid antigen tests. I believe they are mostly pilot projects and test projects. It is clear that we need a common approach to this because we need mutual recognition. There is no point putting in place testing facilities if the destination country will not recognise the tests undertaken by the person travelling. This goes back to the point that travellers need to know the rules in their home country and their destination country, and they need to be assured that by the time they come back, the rules will still be the same.

On subnational information, the famous colour-coded map is published by the ECDC. It is on its website. It is intended to have subnational information but the ECDC depends on the input received from member states for that information. There may be differences across Europe.

I have no specific information on the question on borders with third countries. I would need to investigate that further. Of course, we have the recommendation on travel to third countries, which was adopted before the summer. This is a list of countries that is regularly updated. Switzerland may be a special case because it is part of the Schengen area system.

I wish to ask a couple of follow-up questions. When is the report expected from the EASA and the ECDC in relation to a testing protocol and what is the timeline in relation to that? As regards the efforts outside of testing to agree a common approach, Mr. Cornelis referenced that there was a difference between the Commission's proposal and that adopted by the Council. What efforts are being made to harmonise those approaches, the difference between which is a considerable weakness that has been identified by many? I have a final, brief question on the rights of passengers. Mr. Cornelis mentioned that advice was given. It is probable that millions of people across the EU are still waiting on vouchers and refunds. Has the Commission taken a case against any of the airlines in Ireland in particular?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

One of the differences between the Commission proposal and the final result is that we had included a recommendation that, where possible, testing should be preferred over quarantining. This recommendation is no longer in the document, at least not in a clear way. We are seeing quite often that on the one hand, the medical experts such as the ECDC are advising isolation or quarantine as a measure to be taken for symptomatic passengers or confirmed cases, or close contacts of such cases. On the other hand, in a number of countries quarantine and testing is applied to all travellers, so there is a gap between the medical advice and the reality of the measures that are taken. We hope the development of a testing protocol that will be supported by the medical authorities, the ECDC and hopefully the Health Security Committee, where member states are discussing these matters, will help us to develop a system that will be safe in terms of public health but will favour the possibility to travel. As I have said, a general quarantine on all travellers tends to defeat the purpose of most travel.

On the question of passenger rights-----

When will the testing protocol to which Deputy O'Rourke referred be ready to go to the Council?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

I do not have a precise date, but it is a matter of weeks, I would think.

We published advice on the question of passenger rights. The EU rules remain in place and are unchanged. As has always been the case, the enforcement of those rules is primarily the responsibility of the member states' consumer protection authorities. In the Commission we are working with those authorities and linking them up and networking them to assist in pursuing passenger rights. It is clear that there is still a backlog of cases, for example involving reimbursements. However, I must say that many airlines have adapted their approach over the past months, even though we are not entirely there yet.

I want to direct some questions to Mr. Cornelis. Throughout his presentation he pointed to the need for a common and harmonised approach. Indeed, that was pointed out by the IAA. Why was it the position of the Commission to leave it to each member state to pick and choose which particular elements of the protocol were adopted in that state? That is causing the dilemmas we currently have. Mr. Cornelis made the point that the free movement of people is a critical component of the European ideal. In this case, the approach is disjointed and different member states are adopting different elements of this policy. Does Mr. Cornelis have any idea whether we can bring member states together, so that we have a global acceptance of the policy that has been put together? I would like to hear Mr. Cornelis's view on that. How far away are we from getting to the point where we have acceptance across Europe of a safe air travel policy?

Could Mr. Cornelis provide more detail on the point he made in respect of Cyprus? He mentioned that a particular policy was open to all airlines and that they could apply for funding to reopen a route that was of strategic importance to Cyprus. The same case applies here in Ireland. Shannon Airport, for example, needs critical connectivity to European hubs and to Heathrow Airport. That would be of major assistance to us here in Ireland, particularly on the west coast, and to the airport itself. I ask Mr. Cornelis to provide more detail on how much funding was made available by Cyprus to the various airlines that have opted into this scheme.

I have been in correspondence with the CEO of the IAA regarding the suspension of training positions that the IAA has operated successfully over many years at its Shannon Airport base. A decision has been made to suspend the training of these aircraft personnel. Given that this problem will pass, it is very short-sighted of the IAA to step in and suspend this particular course. The participants have put in a significant amount of work and have made many sacrifices. In light of the very meagre amount of money that will be saved in suspending the course, it is short-sighted. I would like the IAA to re-evaluate its position on this issue. I ask Mr. Cornelis to respond to the questions I put to him.

Mr. Filip Cornelis

Deputy Carey asked why we do not harmonise more, and more quickly. The reality is that everything that relates to public health is a national competence, and there are no instruments at EU level to impose measures. That is why we are using guidance material, such as that produced by the ECDC and the EASA, and recommendations, which are only as good as their quality and as good as they are in convincing member states that they are the right way forward. We have been quite successful with the health safety protocol that was published in May. It has been very well applied. EASA put in place a system of monitoring to assess the level of compliance with the guidance, and also to determine the impact on the risks of transmission onboard. On both of those counts, the health safety guidance has been quite successful. My hope would be that with a new health testing protocol, we could achieve similar results, provided we are able to convince the health authorities of member states that it is a sound way forward. That is why this work is being done very thoroughly together with the health experts of the ECDC and the member states.

On the Cyprus scheme, this is probably a gross simplification, but the way I understand it works is that the state provides a level of aid per flight on the basis of the load factor.

If the load factor on the flight is above 70%, there is no aid because the flight is considered to be profit-making or at least breaking even. If it is as low as 40%, however, a level of aid is given that is proportionate to the missing load factor. In that way, it gives security to the airlines that operate the route that they will not make losses despite the fact that, at least in the start-up phase, there will not be many passengers. Furthermore, in the current climate, load factors are likely to remain depressed because demand will be depressed. What is good about the scheme is that it gives aid proportionate to the actual need on a flight and it is open to all airlines on a non-discriminatory basis.

Mr. Paul Brandon

On the air traffic controller issue, I can relay the Deputy's request to our chief executive. The core rationale for the decision to suspend training is that we are losing money daily. We have had to work with our unions to protect existing jobs, to continue to maintain service and to manage our financial position through this crisis. We certainly hope that if there is an upturn, and this discussion is part of that context, we will be able to recommence training as soon as possible.

If members use much of their time to ask questions, I will have to curtail the time that can be allowed to respond. If they ask brief questions, it will allow our guests more time to answer.

I will ask a few quick questions but might interject thereafter if that is okay. Like others, I looked forward to the traffic light system being announced. Green routes are very clear in that people can fly to those destinations, although it is quite debatable as to which countries are on the list because of the current Covid-19 figures. There is far less certainty in regard to orange and red routes, which is a problem. That has been flagged by airlines and airports, as well as politically and by consumers. There has been a negative reaction throughout the Union to the orange and red routes and to the lack of standardisation. Will Mr. Cornelis comment on the Commission's plans to reconsider standardising the guidelines?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

I hope the Deputy will forgive me but I am not in a position to comment on future initiatives of the Commission. What I can say is that this is another example where the original Commission proposal made a greater distinction between orange and red countries than did the final recommendation as adopted. It contained a little more granularity so that measures could be adapted accordingly. What really matters is which border measures will or will not be applied in respect of travel between zones of the same colour, or for people travelling to a lower, or better, colour region-----

We are an island nation. I lived in continental Europe for a year. People in Luxembourg, for example, may have to cross an international border several times a day for school or work. We depend on air and sea travel. Have there been similar crackdowns in border regions such as in Germany, where there is a high incidence rate while Luxembourg has a low one? Is there anything comparable that would give some assurances as an island nation that elsewhere in Europe, similar measures are in place?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

Unfortunately, the pandemic is quite active in most corners of Europe, so we in the EU member states are all in very similar circumstances. Nevertheless, different states are applying different measures to travel, which is where we need to make improvements to have both clarity for the travelling public and a level of stability and predictability. One of the underlying elements of the traffic light system is that in principle, for travel between two areas of the same colour there is no need or justification for imposing restrictions such as quarantining or testing of non-symptomatic passengers. What will really matter is what conclusions or actions follow that colour coding, which depends on each member state's decision.

Beyond member states, what kind of dialogue is happening to restart aviation between the European Union and, say, the US, Canada or Australia?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

On the one hand, there is the Council recommendation to reopen non-essential travel with a limited list of third countries, a list that is updated regularly. That work is continuing. On the other hand, work is ongoing in the context of the International Civil Aviation Organization to produce guidance that is quite similar to what we are doing in Europe and what we have done with the EASA and the ECDC. There has been similar guidance on the measures to be taken during the flight and discussions are ongoing on the question of testing for air travel. That is the kind of place where these discussions take place but, at the end of the day, it is for each country's public health authorities to make decisions on whether to follow the guidance that is produced.

Therein lies the problem. There is no standardisation among member states in regard to orange and red routes. In a country such as Ireland that is geographically peripheral, and in a county such as Clare that is even more so, with Shannon Airport in our backyard, we will suffer unless there is uniformity.

I turn to Mr. Brandon. Obviously, there are not as many aeroplanes in the sky. The IAA is supported by the State but has other income streams. How economically impacted by the pandemic has the IAA been?

One or two businesses in the precinct of Shannon Airport are still trading, albeit on a much slimmer margin and greatly scaled back from where they would like to be. They have told me that in recent weeks, people wearing badges have been peering around their premises at the back doors or delivery doors. It is only when they are approached by a member of staff that they declare themselves to be working for the IAA and say they are checking whether a security system is in place. Companies find this unnerving and unannounced. Will Mr. Brandon confirm whether this practice is happening and whether the IAA will continue with it, given that there has been a negative reaction to it in County Clare and the precincts of Shannon Airport?

Mr. Paul Brandon

On the economic impact, we have been significantly impacted. About 90% of our revenue is based on air traffic levels, of which the majority is based on the transatlantic route. Currently, transatlantic traffic has reduced by about 65% compared with this time last year, so there has been a similarly significant impact on our revenue. At the three State airports, traffic has reduced by about 70% compared with what it should be, which is a significant impact.

Will Mr. Brandon comment on the inspections that are happening?

Mr. Paul Brandon

I will comment briefly and might ask my colleague, Dr. Connors, who is from the safety regulation division, to add to that. Inspections are happening and there are security staff whose functions include carrying out unannounced visits to check the security effectiveness at various installations.

I know of one business whose owner stated there had never been such an inspection in all the years the business has existed. On top of the stresses of Covid-19 and trying to trade, the business is experiencing young people with badges arriving at its back door. I think that should stop.

Dr. Niall Connors

I understand the Deputy's position.

As far as the security inspections are concerned, the IAA, on behalf of the State, is carrying out inspections. Some of these are scheduled inspections and some are unscheduled. It is about ensuring there is a quality assurance level within the State and the State has reached a specific standard. My colleague, Mr. Brandon, spoke about outside agencies observing what we as a State are doing and what our standard is. The quality assurance system comprises both announced and unannounced inspections to ensure we have a robust system in place.

Simply put, this issue comes down to the need to have the protocols developed by the EASA and ECDC in place as quickly as possible. This needs to be accepted across the European Union or the system will not work. Given our situation on this island and our close proximity to Britain, it will be necessary to ensure, in respect to whatever protocols will be in operation, that we have something similar to what is in place in Britain. There would have to be contacts between the European Commission and Belfast as well as the British Government. I imagine this is all being impacted by the fact that we are in the middle of Brexit negotiations. At this stage, the witnesses may not want to get into the ins and outs of the testing regimes that may be put in operation, for example, the antigen test with the PCR test, and who will pay for what. That conversation must be under way at this stage. There must be serious discussions throughout the European Union to get member states and third parties, especially Britain, to fully sign up to this. Will Mr. Cornelius provide more information on that?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

First, the job will be to try to get buy-in from EU member states with respect to the ECDC and EASA as well as the health security committee. As far as third countries are concerned, that will clearly be important for the resumption of aviation in the future. I fully understand the specific situation of Ireland and the importance of the UK market for travel. It is indeed very intense but I am afraid I cannot say much about that at this stage, other than that our first objective is to come up with a testing protocol in the first instance that achieves good acceptance across the EU.

To be straight about this, that is the shooting match and it needs to happen as soon as possible. We need to engage as many stakeholders and countries as possible both within the EU and outside it. Otherwise, this opening up will not happen. We are basing this on it being down the line. The case for doing so is not great across Europe at the moment. On the issue of borders, we have the bad news that Belgium and the Netherlands cannot reach an agreement on having Dutch hospitals open up for Belgian patients as hospitals in Belgium reach ICU capacity. Those are the difficulties with which we are dealing.

I ask the representatives of the Irish Aviation Authority if they have a particular view on any type of testing. We have all seen the Health Information Quality Authority report on the antigen test. The strongest argument one could make is that the antigen test would work in parallel with the PCR test, but the latter remains the gold standard. Without testing, we will not get anywhere with this.

Will the representatives of the Irish Aviation Authority indicate what they need? We see from their statement and what they have said how utterly susceptible the sector is at this time and how it is impacted by reduced revenue streams. Whatever about cutting back in certain areas, we cannot cut back on security, health and safety and air traffic control. Those need to be maintained throughout this period to ensure we will have an operating infrastructure and industry when we get to a point when we can travel more freely.

Mr. Paul Brandon

Regarding the Deputy's question on our having a view into the appropriate type of testing, that is not really for us to say. There are a number of alternatives to the PCR test. Our view is that testing should be viewed as a preventative measure. It is targeted at an individual rather than quarantines which, typically, are reactive and are seen as a largely blunt instrument. I also note that with air travel one is essentially testing to check that a passenger is negative as opposed to the typical test which is to check if somebody is positive. From that perspective, there may be scope to use tests which are somewhat less than the gold standard, as the Deputy said with respect to the PCR test.

The Deputy asked what the IAA needs. Essentially, we need air travel to recover. We are managing through the crisis at the moment. We have strong reserves that we had built up over years and we are utilising those reserves to maintain our service. However, the Deputy is entirely correct. Our focus is on maintaining the safety and security aspects and ensuring we keep the skies open. We have had a bad 2020 and it is likely that 2021 will not be great. We really need to see a recovery horizon from next summer onwards.

No one is willing to give me the answer that I want on testing but, in fairness, I appreciate the answers we have been given. We can move on. It would be helpful if we could have those protocols introduced as quickly as possible and accepted across the board.

I have a few questions for Mr. Cornelius. Can we can have a proper functioning airline industry in Europe again without having a proper pre-departure rapid test in place and compete harmonisation between the individual European countries on the traffic light system? Would the Irish Government be required to apply to the European Commission for state aid if it were to give it to an Irish airline and how long would that take?

Moving to the representatives of the Irish Aviation Authority, if a proper pre-departure testing system is not introduced and we do not have harmonisation, how long will the airline industry in Ireland last?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

While it is not easy for me to give specific answers relating to Ireland, what I can say in reply to the Chairman's final question is that at this moment airlines, airports and others in the sector are burning through their cash reserves. In terms of combining a programme of cost reduction with the attempt to find fresh money, some airlines have received money from the state, some from the financial markets and others are using their financial reserves but they are finite. What we are seeing and hearing from the sector is that if the current situation persists with a traffic level that is only half what it should normally be and the number of passengers only a quarter of what it would normally be, there will bankruptcies and-or large-scale redundancies. We are already seeing some longer term effects with airlines scaling back their operations and, for example, retiring part of their fleet in a structural way. This makes us believe that we will come out of this crisis not entirely in the same shape and form as we entered it. There will be some longer term impacts. The industry often refers to a long period of gradual resumption of traffic levels up to 2024, or sometimes even beyond that.

Next year, the European Commission will conduct an indepth study to try to understand the longer-term structural impact of this crisis on the sector and determine whether we need to adapt our legal framework or programmes in order to achieve a green and sustainable recovery of the sector while re-establishing free movement and the many interconnections between people and businesses in Europe.

Can the airline industry come back without having a common pre-departure rapid test and a common understanding of the EU traffic light system?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

The general perception in the sector is that, as long as there is no vaccine or an exit from the pandemic, there will be a need for measures such as a testing protocol. The observation is that states wish to impose border measures even when doing so is not always recommended - certainly not in the way they are being implemented - by the European Centre for Disease Prevention, ECDC, the WHO and others. Considering the reality that border measures exist, however, the way to get passengers to travel again will be to have a harmonised and stable system of border measures, ones that should not be quarantines, which would defeat the purpose of travel, except for symptomatic passengers and confirmed cases. For example, there could be a testing strategy that would mitigate the risk of case importation up to a point that was acceptable to health authorities. This will be the objective of the health protocol. Its success will depend on the uptake by member states. The airlines and airports in particular are keen on this protocol and will promote its use and harmonisation across Europe. I am convinced of that.

May I send a message to the European Commission loud and clear? It should devise a protocol around pre-departure rapid testing. Will Mr. Cornelis take that message back with him?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

I will.

If we do not have a pre-departure rapid testing system and harmonisation of the European traffic light system, how long does the IAA believe the Irish airline industry can survive?

Mr. Paul Brandon

I agree with Mr. Cornelis. It is a difficult situation for the industry. How long the industry can survive depends on each individual business. Businesses are burning through their cash. We have all had a poor 2020. We need something for 2021. In the absence of a vaccine, a mechanism such as pre-departure testing as part of the traffic light system would provide a strong signal to passengers that it was safe to travel and would allow the industry to recover.

In an Irish context, we are particularly dependent on aviation. It is also important from a wider economic perspective, in that aviation is an enabling industry for other industries in terms of connectivity and tourism. In emerging from Covid, it will be an important sector if we can get travel moving again as soon as possible.

I thank Mr. Brandon. Next is Deputy Smith, who has seven minutes.

I thank Mr. Cornelis. The questions I was going to ask him have already been asked, so I will direct my questions to the IAA. I will not take the full seven minutes.

I will not hold the Deputy to that.

Notwithstanding the fact that the IAA is a financially independent commercial semi-State body, we might have been forgiven for thinking that, since it is also a safety regulator, there would be some circumspection in its submission. There is none, however. The submission is refreshingly blunt on the need for an airport testing regime.

When appearing before the Covid committee several weeks ago, NPHET poured cold water over the idea of airport testing, be it pre-departure or on arrival, and stated that it was not effective in reducing risk. Essentially, NPHET stated that it was not safe. The IAA is a safety regulator. In preparing its position over the past few weeks, did it have any cognisance of the potential impact on its reputation of being at loggerheads with NPHET's public health advice, which the Government is taking? Did that factor into the IAA's thinking at all or is it confident in the need for testing at airports?

Mr. Paul Brandon

I will make a few comments. We are not public health or scientific experts. We are examining this purely from an aviation perspective. In that context, if there is a proven negative case and one applies the existing European Union Aviation Safety Authority, EASA, and ECDC protocol for the management of passengers, that should provide the appropriate reassurance. We respect that public health and the management of borders are national competences and that wider issues than aviation need to be considered, but in looking at this purely from the perspective of restarting the aviation industry, pre-departure testing as part of the traffic light system, allied to the existing controls and measures on board flights and in airports, should allow for an effective reopening of aviation.

In bold font in its submission, the IAA states that it covers all aspects of aviation safety. From a passenger point of view, Covid is the main safety aspect at the moment. Speaking personally, I would not feel safe travelling now. If there was a testing regime, be it pre-departure or on arrival, I would feel safe. I believe that is representative of the majority view across the country.

What level of engagement has the IAA had with the Government, for example, the Department of Transport or any State agency, regarding the matters raised in its submission? Has it had many meetings?

Mr. Paul Brandon

We sit on the national facilitation committee, which is chaired by the Department of Transport. As such, we continually engage with the Department. We have not discussed the concept of airport testing, what is the appropriate test or so on beyond stating our view that, given the aviation industry's position currently, it is important that mechanisms be put in place to support its reopening. The overall public health and scientific aspects of one test versus another are for someone else to comment on.

From sitting on the committee, does the IAA believe that the Department's view has evolved? What is Mr. Brandon's sense of the Department's position?

Mr. Paul Brandon

It has welcomed the traffic light system. We support that. The Department is working through a difficult situation in terms of recognising the importance of travel while also taking into account the wider importance of managing the virus and Ireland's border. We welcome the Department's approach and are glad to see that the intention is to adopt the traffic light system. I understand that it has considered the issue of testing and that there are ongoing discussions at interdepartmental level on whether to proceed with testing and, if so, what the appropriate type of test would be.

I will leave it at that. The IAA has made a strong submission and I hope that the Government takes cognisance of it. I thank the witnesses for their participating in this meeting. It has been most useful.

I welcome our contributors. I have read the IAA's report to us. It is clear and concise and makes solid recommendations.

The authority is saying that Ireland should position itself in the context of testing and quarantine and not wait for other countries to give the lead. With regard to testing, it also says that the technology is available and that the next step is the political will and an agreed standard approach. When the authority says the technology for testing is available, to what is it referring? How would the authority proceed and what advice would it give on testing?

All members of the committee know it is massively important to get the aviation industry up and running again. Effectively, the impact of the closure has been devastating. I have been critical for some time of the fact that we are eight months into the pandemic and we have made no real progress on rapid testing at our airports and ports. The Government has aligned itself with the new European Union travel system, but one can see today that there are problems with that, particularly in the context of harmonisation. We will not get people moving through our airports and travelling into the country again for tourism, business and other reasons if we do not have a rapid, efficient and reliable testing regime in place. That system has to be rapid and people must understand that it exists. It is an encouragement to travel and one builds confidence with the public. Travel at present is all about confidence. What technology is envisaged? There are a number of tests, such as the LAMP test and the antigen test. Which technology is preferred? The witnesses have obviously studied it.

Mr. Paul Brandon

We do not have a preference for a particular test. We understand that the current PCR-based test is considered the gold standard for testing. In terms of testing at airports, there may be alternatives such as the antigen test, a saliva-based PCR test or something else which could be used to give certainty regarding a negative test. Again, in our view, it is not up to us to say which should be the appropriate test. However, from a policy perspective, if there is no mechanism such as the Deputy mentioned - testing allied to certainty for travellers - it would be difficult to reopen aviation. The Government has been clear in adopting the traffic light mechanism, and we welcome that. The next step is to be able to put a testing regime in place by which passengers would know that if they present as negative, they can travel and know that they do not have to quarantine and that they can return once their business is concluded. That is our position.

I thank the witnesses for the information they provided to the committee. In my engagement with stakeholders in aviation, other than the witnesses, they express a degree of concern about the infrastructure that will have to be built in the event that we decide to implement some form of testing system in our airports. Has the IAA had any engagement with the Department or Minister with responsibility for local government on availing of the rapid planning process for infrastructure that needs to be put in place in the airports for Covid testing? My understanding is that it is not within the criteria for that at present, which is not necessarily wise. It is something that should be changed. I seek the perspective of the IAA on that.

Mr. Paul Brandon

The planning processes are probably a matter for the airport authorities, so we have not engaged with the Department or the Government on that. Depending on the test that is chosen, it may not need to be rapid and two hours in advance of travel. It could be a test that is carried out a day before. Obviously, that does not mean it must be at the airport location as it could be carried out at an alternative location, with the result given to a passenger to allow him or her to travel the next day.

Am I correct that the IAA has no input into infrastructure being constructed at airports for any reason?

Mr. Paul Brandon

Not at the airport terminals; we have infrastructure for air traffic management and the like, but not in terms of this question.

I will turn to the air traffic management section. Obviously, there is very little passenger traffic, as was outlined in the presentation. That is highly worrying. I understand that some airports require major upgrade works. In Cork, for example, there has been much talk about a new runway being installed. Does the IAA see any opportunity over the next number of months to deal with such issues, while passenger and aeroplane traffic is quite low?

Mr. Paul Brandon

We have a number of projects which we have prioritised as part of our capital programme and we understand that the airports are doing something similar. The difficulty for the airports and ourselves is that one is managing a financial position in terms of trying to continue to invest in the business while also managing a loss-making position at present. Certainly, we have looked at all our projects and we are prioritising the ones we believe are appropriate to prioritise now. We understand the airports are carrying out a similar exercise.

My next question relates to the drop in passenger traffic. I am concerned that the statistics provided by the witnesses show a larger drop in Ireland in airline and passenger traffic through our airports compared with some of our European neighbours. Everybody is aware that travel at present must only be for essential reasons and that holiday and other non-essential travel should not occur. However, it worries me that we are not travelling at the same average rate as our European neighbours, even though we have put many protocols in place and, hopefully, there are more to come. Is that down to the domestic situation in Ireland, or is it connected to the lack of transatlantic traffic, for example?

Mr. Paul Brandon

It is both. Transatlantic traffic is down significantly and is not recovering. In terms of aircraft movements at the three State airports, they are lower than those in equivalent airports across Europe as well. It is a combination of both.

Would Mr. Brandon boil that down to the domestic situation in Ireland compared with, perhaps, Germany where there are higher levels of travel within the European Union?

Mr. Paul Brandon

It is difficult to give the exact reason. There has been clear guidance from the Government regarding essential travel only, and the public has been quite compliant with that.

I appreciate that. My next question is for the representative from the European Commission, Mr. Cornelis. Our connections with North America and transatlantic traffic are very important for the aviation sector in Ireland and for Shannon, Dublin and Cork. I am concerned about the current guidelines set down by the government in the United States. Obviously, the US is going through a serious surge in Covid cases at present. However, in the medium term and when we hopefully have a vaccination which people can take, has the European Commission any plans in place or is it in discussions with its counterparts in the United States and other countries in North America about the resumption of transatlantic services, which are critical for foreign direct investment in Ireland, jobs and domestic tourism? My constituency of Cork East, Cork county and the surrounding region are heavily reliant on American tourism and tourists coming from North America.

Mr. Filip Cornelis

Today, there is a prohibition, if I am well informed, on non-essential travel in both directions. This is still in place on both the European side and the US side. The Deputy will remember that it was the US that first imposed it on Europeans last spring. Returning to what I said previously, in the absence of a subsiding of the pandemic or a vaccine solution, protocols such as a testing protocol can be useful.

We will definitely develop it within the EU between member states. I can also see scope for working with certain third countries. It is clear some in the US are arguing for this. The US remains one of our most important external markets for aviation, as well as generally in terms of human and economic contacts. It could be an obvious candidate. However, it is still a little bit too early on both sides of the Atlantic to take those steps.

I apologise to the witnesses for speaking with my back to them but it cannot be helped.

Some of my colleagues have already alluded to the situation regarding the North and harmonisation. While I appreciate the Commission's priority is likely to be harmonisation across Europe, while for us as an island nation, there is a need to ensure harmonisation, as most colleagues have said today. Has Mr. Brandon any information on any current conversations around the open skies arrangement? Will Britain sign up to it? If it will not, is there any new protocol or potential new arrangement in place? As a committee, we should be ascertaining the answers to these questions sooner rather than later.

Like the aviation sector across the world, we, across the island, find ourselves in a difficult situation. We almost have a double whammy insofar as we do not know where we are with the next side of Brexit, as well as with this global pandemic. It is important we get information around harmonisation, not just with regard to the pandemic and testing, but across the board. Has the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, any information where that is at? We have signed up to a memorandum of understanding which reinforces the common travel area, CTA, although the legislative framework around it is somewhat questionable. We cannot continue to talk about the crisis in aviation without highlighting the fact we will have a particular unique set of circumstances across the island in January dealing with part of the island being in Europe but another part not being.

Mr. Paul Brandon

On Brexit matters, we understand the UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, will continue to recognise European Union Aviation Safety Agency based certificates for a further two years after 31 December. That is positive. It means Irish operators can continue to operate into and out of the UK and, likewise, UK operators, can continue to operate into and out of Ireland.

I do not have any information on the wider connectivity issue or the future open skies arrangement. It is obviously in the interests of both jurisdictions, as well as the EU, to maintain existing levels as close as possible post Brexit.

The committee needs to keep asking about the open skies policy. We were discussing the harmonisation of the EU traffic light travel system. Has the IAA an opinion or has it been in conversation with colleagues in Belfast or London on trying to harmonise it outside of the European protocol?

Mr. Paul Brandon

No, we have not been in conversation. That would be a matter for the Government to determine or enter into discussions about.

That is fine. The committee needs to be referencing this and asking questions on this.

Who makes the decision on state aid for airports and airlines? Is it the national parliament, government or the EU which decides how much can be given to an airport and airline? Is it made on the number of passengers carried? How will that be done in the future?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

We have a common state aid regime in the EU. What is fixed at EU level is the framework within which the rules of the game and aid can be provided. The actual decision to provide aid to a specific company, or to put in place a specific scheme into which several companies can tap, is a purely national decision. From the European Commission's side, we cannot force any member state to give aid or to put in place a scheme. It is a combination. Many aid schemes have to be notified to the Commission and approved by it. The Commission checks whether the notification conforms with the framework established at EU level. This goes very quickly, by the way.

How long does it take the EU to make a decision if a national government decides to grant state aid to an airport or an airline?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

During the Covid crisis, this has been done in days or weeks.

Ireland is in a completely different position from any other European country. We are an island nation, as has been said previously. Can a special case be made for the likes of Ireland which is totally dependent on airlines and air transport?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

I am not actually sure it is necessary to make a special case. With the aid rules in place, particularly the temporary state aid framework, there are many possibilities available of which states can avail. So far, all the member states have found what they needed in that framework.

On train travel between countries, does Mr. Cornelis believe the testing regime should be the same as that for air travel?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

That is a pertinent question. In principle, I assume from a public health perspective, the way one travels does not really matter. We have the health safety protocol from the spring which puts in place measures, such as wearing masks and so forth, for the actual journey and an airline cabin. When it comes to deciding who can travel on the basis of whether a person is infected, the mode of transport should not really matter.

For some modes of transport, it may be easier to put in place a testing scheme than for other modes. Some adaptations would be needed for other modes of transport. Perhaps that is why we are starting with air travel, which is very regulated and where there are many checkpoints, so to speak, in one's journey at which a testing protocol, can be either implemented or enforced. Once we have that, it could be envisaged to adapt it for other modes of transport.

Has the Government to date made any application for state aid to support airlines in Ireland?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

Not that I am aware of. This is not the responsibility of my department and I may not have all the latest information.

In terms of Senator McCallion's question, are there any discussions ongoing between the European Commission and the United States around the development of open skies?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

If the Chairman is talking about reopening travel, there are no particular active discussions under way as far as I am aware. The first task that should be undertaken is to see whether the general approach to travel to and from the US of non-essential travellers would be modified. So far, from the aviation perspective, we have to remain within the rules that our home affairs colleagues have put in place. For the moment, non-essential travel, as far as I know, is not allowed.

In Mr. Brandon and Dr. Connors's conclusion, they state, "It is the Irish Aviation Authority's view that Ireland should take a lead in promoting a standard approach to airport departure testing and the removal of quarantine requirements across Europe." They go on to state, as Deputy Lowry said, that, "The technology is there now; the next step is political will and an agreed standard approach." What can Ireland do as a country, based on what is currently in place in Europe, where we have a traffic light system that allows countries at orange, red and green effectively to implement quarantine systems if they wish, and the fact we do not have a defined protocol - that is currently being considered now by the European Commission - around testing on pre-departures? What pre-departure testing for flights could be in place come 8 November with which Ireland could lead the way in terms of opening up the aviation sector that is so critical to our economy while, obviously, reducing risk and maintaining public health and safety?

Mr. Paul Brandon

I can start and my colleague may have something to add. In terms of leading the way, we can bring a clear approach in terms of implementing the traffic light system. The members of the committee will be familiar with this. Going from a green country to another green country, there is effectively no restriction, but going from an orange country to an orange country or from red to red, for example, we could bring in a particular testing requirement and apply these rules in a clear and consistent manner, which would provide a lead in terms of guidance to the rest of the Community.

It should be possible to distil it down such that there is green to green, which has no testing of any description, orange to orange or red to red. I will not even go grey to grey. What would the IAA practically like to see? Orange is the colour that will mark the airline landscape for a time. What would happen where there is travel from an orange country to another orange country? Come 8 November and the virus rate is coming down in Europe, will the witnesses give me a practical way of how the IAA would like to see it in operation from the Irish perspective?

Mr. Paul Brandon

A practical way would be, from an orange to an orange, that a test is applied, and if the test is negative, there is no requirement to quarantine upon travel.

Dr. Niall Connors

From a State perspective, there are wider public health perspective considerations that have to be considered. In the business of risk mitigation, which is, I suppose, what I would specialise in, the key is to have an omni-channel approach where it is not only a traffic light system but also that it is supported by other protocols and systems across that.

At a state level, the State has a number of areas that it must consider before pushing out in that perspective. The important aspect would be the engagement at a wider European level that it would be not satisfactory that a person would travel from one state to another, both which may be orange states, to use the Chairman's example, but there are differing national protocols that might limit the aviation sector, which is what we are talking about here, being as productive as it might be.

How can Ireland lead the way on this?

Dr. Niall Connors

If I were looking at it from a State perspective, I would be asking what we can put into our arsenal that will mitigate risk for our citizens in travelling. Certainly, a traffic light system is a positive step. I would have thought some sort of a testing protocol system prior to departure-----

From Ireland.

Dr. Niall Connors

-----may also be helpful.

What about departures from other countries coming into Ireland? What attitude would Dr. Connors take on that in terms of mitigating the risks?

Dr. Niall Connors

In fairness, those are considerations for individual states to make. From a public health perspective, it would be up to Ireland as a State to decide if it was willing to accept those standards or what the standard of the testing would be.

Explain Ireland leading the way. I need to understand. When you refer to Ireland leading the way, are you saying that we have a pre-departure test in place?

Dr. Niall Connors

It would make sense that we would have the traffic light system, which is fine, and then explore what a pre-departure test might look like, again, in consultation with public health officials, what an acceptable standard would be, and how the State might do that. However, I am not a public health expert.

That would have to be a rapid test.

Dr. Niall Connors

I do not know. I am not a public health expert.

I want to ask Mr. Cornelis one or two final questions. At present, the European traffic light system is guided by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The most recent updated map of risk level is dated 22 October. I have been looking at the red regions. The Commission made it clear, when it was announced that we were moving to the traffic light system, that it was based on regions as opposed to countries, and yet in discourse it often gets mixed up. It has been much reported that it is red, green and orange countries when, in fact, it is regions. Italy is the only country I can see on the 22 October map where there is a region coloured green and the rest of the country coloured red. For Ireland, mainland Spain, Portugal and France, it is red across the board.

I would be interested in hearing, given that we are a small island nation, if the Commission is considering all of Ireland, by which I mean the Twenty-six Counties or the Republic, to be one region, if the Commission is considering it on a provincial basis, or what kind of regional breakdown there is. That is important as well given that we have our capital's airport in Dublin, but in the west of Ireland, in Clare, where we would be quite a distance from Dublin, it is only recently that our rates of Covid have crept up to a high level. It would be punitive to have the whole country, in European aviation terms, considered as one region. Will Mr. Cornelis clarify that please?

Mr. Filip Cornelis

The system is based on established levels of regions within member states, but I am afraid I do not really know how it is applied in Ireland.

I thank Mr. Cornelis. It would be important that we would get clarification on that. The maps are somewhat misleading. The members will be aware we have county boundaries. We have subregional boundaries as well, such as the mid-west. It is important to establish that. For Shannon and Cork airports, it matters a great deal. We have seen throughout Europe that Covid has now almost caught up in rural and urban areas, but the trend for many months was that Covid thrived in urban settings and less so in rural areas.

I have a final question for the Irish Aviation Authority. One of the common themes of discussion here in this committee in recent weeks has been the imbalance of aviation where Dublin, in the second quarter of this year, had 155,000 passengers and Shannon had only a couple of hundred. There is a bit of ministerial design of policy required here but safety is one of the IAA's major oversight functions.

Do the witnesses believe that at a time of high Covid figures and as we try to look for a pathway forward over the coming months, on safety grounds alone and moving beyond what should morally happen in terms of regions and peripheral regions, aviation should be dispersed throughout the various terminuses around Ireland, not just in Dublin but also Shannon and Cork? There are 155,000 versus a couple of hundred. Should people be spread more evenly on safety grounds alone? Is there a heightened role for Shannon Airport in the months ahead as we try to strategise our way out of this crisis?

Mr. Paul Brandon

Where passengers travel is ultimately driven by demand and existing routes. If there was a system of dispersing passengers, we would need to look at the industry somewhat differently. If a passenger flew into one airport and then travelled across the country that would work against the intention of dispersing passengers to particular airports. From a Shannon Airport perspective, the numbers are low at the moment but it is important that it plays a key role in the recovery. It is important that it maintains connectivity into the region, and similar applies to Cork Airport.

On some level I can answer my question. We have all decided that the shooting match is testing and that we need harmonisation across the board to whatever degree we can as soon as possible to ensure that we can operate better than we are now. We have used a locator form. That type of idea has been used across the board. I am not necessarily sure that it has been as impactful as anticipated.

Have there been any positives in how individual states across Europe have operated that we could introduce at this point while accepting that testing is the most significant factor we need to get right? I ask Mr. Cornelis and the IAA representatives to comment.

Mr. Filip Cornelis

When we are talking about facilitating travel, we are talking about a host of measures that need to jointly contribute to making travel safe. Enabling good contact tracing with the help of passenger location forms is definitely part of that arsenal. Given the level of problems we see today, it is less relevant in many parts of Europe. It remains part of the arsenal.

We are developing a context called healthy gateways, which is a collaborative project involving a number of member states as well as the Commission and EASA. It is an IT solution that could be used across Europe. We need passenger locator forms to be available to all of the authorities that need them. People crossing boarders are a particular issue. We are working on an app that could be used by member states to improve the way the system functions.

Mr. Paul Brandon

I will ask my colleague to take the next question.

Dr. Niall Connors

In terms of the pan-European strategy, we link in with EASA and the ECDC on protocols and common application and harmonisation of them. That is a very dynamic process. As people learn more about the virus and how to mitigate the risks associated with it or how to combat it in certain circumstances, feedback from different states is informing how that protocol is developing. Equally, at a national level with colleagues in the Department and the protocols around the management of air passengers, a lot of those conversations and how that evolves is informed by our visibility of other European states through other fora, in particular EASA.

In response to Mr. Cornelis, the app sounds very interesting and necessary. What is the timeline for putting it in operation? Can he tell us who one or two of the best kids in the class are as regards contact tracing? It is absolutely necessary, in particular for travel and catching problems as they arise.

Mr. Filip Cornelis

My connection is degrading a little bit. I only caught part of the question.

It might also be the way I asked the question.

Mr. Filip Cornelis

No, I do not think so. If the Deputy asked about how contact tracing is applied, I am afraid that is a question for public health officials. I will not be of much help.

I asked whether there are one or two good examples of countries which had operated contact tracing, particularly in respect of travel, and whether there were any examples of best practice. I refer to the timeline for the app, which sounds like an absolutely necessary piece of kit.

Mr. Filip Cornelis

On the timeline, I do not have the details. It is a question of months as far as my understanding goes. Regarding best practice, I would not be able to say anything about the respective member states. EASA has a monitoring system in place. It is getting feedback from many airlines, airports and member states to get a picture as to how the risk of transmission in journey works. It published that information and the Irish authorities have access to it. So far, from that evidence we have seen the safety protocols that are used during the journey and on board seem to be pretty effective.

I thank Mr. Cornelis.

I have one final question for the IAA. I refer to the issue of refunds to passengers from airlines. Can the IAA give us an update on the correspondence it has had with specific airlines and where that issue stands at this moment in time?

Mr. Paul Brandon

We do not have responsibility for that area. The responsibility rests with the Commission for Aviation Regulation, which is a separate statutory body.

It does not in any way involve the IAA.

Mr. Paul Brandon

It does not. We are responsible for aviation safety regulation, not economic or financial regulation.

I would like to thank all of the witnesses for attending today and engaging with the committee, in particular Mr. Cornelis.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.30 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 October 2020.