Adjournment Matter. - Facilities at State Airports.

Older people and those with some disability like to be as mobile as possible for as long as possible. If one boards a bus in the middle of the day it is full of older people. Older people make great use of trains as well. They would make more use of aeroplanes too, particularly to visit friends and family, if airports were not as intimidating as they are. I express an interest here as I refer in part to experiences I have seen with my mother-in-law who lives in the west of Scotland and who is in her early eighties.

Aer Rianta provides wheelchairs to take people from check-in to departure. In the early morning there is an awful lot of queuing involved, particularly as it puts together different regional destinations. In Britain it is all the one queue. It is very intimidating for an older person to the extent that people ask if they will go through with it again. Often there is nowhere to sit down. When people get in the wheelchair they might like to stop at the duty free but there is no opportunity to do so.

The case I am making is not just a social and humanitarian one, it is also a commercial one. There is a big untapped market for older people if conditions were right at big airports. Obviously there is no problem at small airports such as Farranfore which is easy to get around. Air operators are missing a big opportunity. People want to travel but, clearly, air travel in the larger airport is for the able-bodied. It is not for those who, with the best will in the world, are not able to travel long distances or to wait on their feet for long periods.

In the context of talking about new terminals at, say, Dublin Airport, whether under Aer Rianta or private management, I urge the Minister – I thank him for coming in to take this matter – to look at the design of the airport from the point of view of this untapped market. For example, why not have a special seating area, a type of waiting room with special check-in desks where people could be called one by one, for those who have impaired mobility or who are not able to stand for long periods? The airports could be made much more humane.

I am a greater admirer of Ryanair. However, I went to the desk for a timetable and I was informed it does not issue timetables anymore, they are all on the Internet. I accept Ryanair is not in the Minister's jurisdiction in any shape or from. For an older person over the age of 60, who may not have a younger person living with them who could do the booking on the Internet, this is not friendly. We have got to stop making life more difficult for older people. They have rights and want to enjoy life. They want to have normal social contact.

I accept that the possibility for adaptation is limited within an existing Bill, but I urge the Minister in the context of planning for the future to see if we could not be a pioneer country in providing and specifically catering for the needs of the older person and the person who is partially disabled. This would improve not only their quality of life, but increase throughput through airports and increase the number of persons who are able to travel. There is both self-interest and idealism involved.

I thank Senator Mansergh for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I listened carefully to what he said and I have no difficulty in agreeing 100% with his sentiments. How it deals with issues such as this is a measure of any civilised society. Certainly our society should be mature enough to deal in a sensitive and sensible way with these issues.

I have taken careful note of what the Senator said and I will examine the issue as a matter of urgency. Overall responsibility for general Government policy on the rights of people with disabilities is primarily a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Aer Rianta has statutory responsibility for the management, operation and development of the State airports, including the provision of facilities and services for aircraft and passengers as it considers necessary. The company has informed me it is company policy to ensure that the design and provision of facilities at the State airports are user friendly and accessible to all, including the elderly and persons with disabilities. The company has a pro-active policy on disability and has put in place a range of facilities and initiatives over the years which are designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities in their journey through the State airports.

The building standards used by Aer Rianta for design purposes are the building regulations 2000 and in particular Part M of those regulations which concentrates on access for people with disabilities. In this regard also the company uses the current guidance document, Buildings for Everyone, published by the National Disability Authority. Aer Rianta also refers to various other relevant publications, some dedicated to airports and others more generic in nature but focused on mobility, access to buildings and the surrounding landscape. From time to time Aer Rianta consults with various agencies with specialist knowledge about specific areas of concern.

Aer Rianta has always recognised the importance of delivering a high quality of service to all customers and the enhancement of the quality of the travel experience for all users, including the elderly and people with disabilities. The company informs me that this is achieved in partnership with the various other service providers at the airports.

The three Aer Rianta airports at Dublin, Shannon and Cork were among the first signatories to the airport voluntary commitment on air passenger service which was officially launched in February 2002. Aer Rianta's involvement in this voluntary commitment further demonstrates the company's commitment to customer service at the airports.

One of the terms of the voluntary code commits Aer Rianta to a special protocol on meeting the needs of people with reduced mobility to ensure that infrastructure and facilities meet the needs of people with disabilities and that their safety and dignity are respected. The code also requires that the European Commission's Charter on Air Passenger Rights is prominently displayed at key strategic locations throughout the airports.

The airport voluntary commitment on air passenger service is also highlighted and explained on the Aer Rianta corporate website. Airlines and ground handling operators at the airports are aware of Aer Rianta's commitment to operate the voluntary code through discussions held at the airline operators committee and other such forums.

In 1999, Aer Rianta introduced a by-law which requires service providers at the State airports to make available such facilities as are necessary for passengers with disabilities in order that they may avail of all airport services. This by-law, together with the more recent special protocol to which I referred earlier, has assisted in making people in general and, in particular, people with disabilities, more aware of their rights and has heightened awareness of the issue of facilitating people with disabilities at the airports.

Aer Rianta informs me that it continually updates its facilities with a view to improving access and services to passengers and visitors with disabilities. At Dublin Airport, for example, an audit of all sanitary facilities for such persons was completed recently and a schedule of work is in progress on recommended modifications.

Aer Rianta and the airlines working at Dublin Airport have agreed to implement new measurable customer service standards at the airport to enhance the experience of those travelling through it. These service standards apply to a number of key processes at the airport, including passenger check-in, security screening and baggage collection.

Further improvements are also planned for Shannon Airport, including additional public seating for passengers and upgrading and refurbishment of facilities for disabled people in the older arrivals building. With the airport designated as an arrival point for Special Olympics participants, work has already commenced on the upgrade of disabled toilet facilities adjacent to the delegation welcome centre.

A new terminal and associated facilities are planned for Cork Airport. I understand from Aer Rianta that tenders for the construction of the new terminal and supporting infrastructure are in the final stages of evaluation and that work on this programme will get under way in the coming weeks. The project will include a new terminal building, a multi-storey car park with a covered walkway connection to the terminal and airbridge facilities to protect passengers getting from the terminal to their aircraft. All aspects of this major investment programme at the airport will take full account of the needs of the elderly and disabled. In this regard Aer Rianta consulted with the representatives of disabled groups to ensure the design is appropriate to their needs.

I take on board the points raised by Senator Mansergh, including his comments on Ryanair. I will see how I can advance the cause of ensuring that elderly and disabled people have the full facilities to which they are entitled at the three State and all other airports.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 May 2003.