I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I warmly congratulate her on her appointment. If she will pardon the pun, she has hit the ground running. She is so enthusiastic about this and she is doing a great job. We look forward to her statement.
Aviation Industry: Statements
I am delighted to be here today as it is my first time to address the Seanad since I served as a Senator. I wish all Members who have this great honour of serving here well.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to update the House on aviation matters in general and on what the Government is doing to support Irish aviation during this unprecedented crisis.
As an island nation, Ireland is particularly dependent on air connectivity, both socially and economically. Aviation plays a critical role in our economy. It is essential for tourism, export businesses and foreign direct investment. Successive Government policies have recognised this and have particularly pointed to Ireland's reliance on international connectivity to secure its competitive position internationally. Due to the coronavirus, however, global civil aviation is currently experiencing its most challenging crisis ever, more challenging than 9/11 or the global financial crash. At the peak of the crisis, traffic movements in Europe were below 2019 levels by more than 90%. Passenger numbers were estimated at just 1% of pre-Covid-19 numbers. I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the role the aviation sector, airlines and the leasing sector played in facilitating the supply of personal protective equipment, PPE, for the HSE from around the world at this time. While some traffic returned during the summer months to countries where travel and border restrictions were eased, this appears to have stalled while many European states implement new measures to deal with the now increasing numbers of Covid-19 cases. Several forecasts across the airline sector do not anticipate global capacity returning to 2019 levels before 2023 or 2024.
The question of when aviation business might be able to resume in a meaningful way is clearly linked to the evolution of the coronavirus, ongoing travel restrictions and advice, consumer confidence and the economic outlook more generally. Current estimates predict that airport passenger numbers this year will be just 25% of 2019 numbers. The scale of this decline is having a severe financial impact on airlines, airports and associated businesses in the aviation sector.
In order to assist businesses and protect employment, the Government acted early in the Covid-19 crisis, introducing wage supports in the form of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme and then the employment wage subsidy scheme. These schemes provide direct assistance to employers to keep staff on the payroll. Some aviation workers may also be entitled to short-time work supports. In addition, the Government put a comprehensive suite of generalised supports in place for companies of all sizes, including those in the aviation sector. Companies can avail of grants, low-cost loans, commercial rates waivers and deferred tax liabilities. Larger companies, including those in the aviation sector, can apply for liquidity support through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund's pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund. All of our airports are benefitting from the generalised supports which I have outlined here. In addition, Shannon Airport has been provided with an emergency grant of more than €6 million to complete its hold baggage screening project, a safety and security requirement under EU regulations.
The Government has taken strong and targeted action to support regional airports. Our regional airports are also benefitting from the range of Covid-19-related Government measures I have outlined. Donegal Airport, Ireland West Airport Knock, Kerry Airport and Waterford Airport are being supported under the Government's regional airports programme. This year these airports are receiving approximately €6 million in Exchequer grants for both capital and current expenditure. Regional connectivity also continues to be subsidised through public service obligation, PSO, air services between Dublin and the regional airports of Donegal and Kerry, with more than €7 million being provided to support these services in 2020. A new regional airports programme for the five-year period starting in 2021 is also being finalised. I expect this to be published before the end of this year.
These supports notwithstanding, our airlines and other aviation stakeholders have had to make several difficult decisions in order to best ensure their long-term commercial viability. These decisions have included consideration of redundancies, staff lay-offs and the potential closure of operational bases, and have all been taken in response to the significant reduction in their operations. Industry has also introduced shorter working schemes, which have reduced hours worked and pay received by their staff. Clearly, in the midst of a global pandemic and faced with restrictions on non-essential international air travel, the airline sector serving Ireland will be considering the viability of many of its existing routes. In the circumstances it is anticipated that the level of connectivity during the forthcoming winter season will be lower than last year. Route schedules for the winter season at Irish airports have not yet been finalised by the airlines serving the Irish market. However, it should be noted that any decisions by airlines regarding routes are commercial decisions of the companies concerned. I would like to make it clear that this Government is committed to maintaining Ireland's core strategic connectivity.
As an island, such connectivity is essential to us for export businesses and for foreign direct investment. Further targeted financial supports to help reinstate connectivity and promote regional development and sustainability in the aviation sector are being considered by my Department. This will feed into the Government's further plans to aid broader economic recovery, at the appropriate time and remaining cognisant of prevailing public health advice.
The aviation recovery task force, which reported in July, set out recommendations for consideration by Ministers and Government as to what needs to be done to assist the Irish aviation sector to recover from the Covid-19 crisis. The task force report contains a number of recommendations on how to support Irish aviation in two phases. It recommended that measures to sustain the industry for as long as travel demand remains suppressed be introduced, followed by measures to help stimulate a return to growth when the time is right.
The Government has already implemented several of the task force's recommendations, including the publication of safe air travel protocols. In consultation with the European Commission, we have progressed a European slot rule waiver for airlines. The wage subsidy scheme was also extended to April 2021. The key to a meaningful recovery in the aviation sector, however, is to enable safe travel where the risk of contracting coronavirus from travel is low. That risk can be mitigated through additional measures such as testing and travellers should have some level of certainty on the public health measures in place during their travel journey.
The European Commission proposal for a co-ordinated approach to the restriction of movement offers a way forward in this regard. As part of its medium-term Covid recovery roadmap, the Government took the decision to broadly align with this EU approach to international travel, which is expected to be finalised at the meeting of the General Affairs Council on 13 October. With regard to countries other than those on the green list, the proposed EU approach would involve graduated requirements for testing for incoming and outgoing passengers.
My Department is consulting the Department of Health and the HSE, as well as maritime and aviation stakeholders, to consider the possibility of introducing testing for Covid-19 in the context of international travel as an alternative to the general advice against non-essential travel. Any testing regime would need to be consistent with public health requirements and cognisant of the resources and capacity for testing available in our health sector. It is our hope that once the European common approach, which includes support for a testing regime, is agreed, the path ahead for aviation and travel will be clearer and we will have better visibility of what might still be needed to support the aviation sector in the medium term.
Aircraft leasing is playing a growing role in the world aviation sector with approximately 40% of the world's commercial airliner fleet currently being leased. Ireland has become a global centre for the aircraft leasing industry, largely as a result of the skills developed during the era of Guinness Peat Aviation, the first truly global leader in this industry. Ireland is now one of the largest international hubs for aircraft leasing and aircraft management activities. The national aviation policy recognises the valuable contribution that the aircraft leasing and finance sector makes, both in its own right and in supporting other activities in the wider aviation sector such as maintenance, repair and overhaul. The Government is committed to maintaining and building on Ireland's attractiveness as a base for leasing and finance and to creating the conditions to grow employment in the sector.
I will say a few words on Brexit and sustainability, as these will be key issues for aviation in the period ahead, Covid-19 notwithstanding. On Brexit, the Government continues to support EU negotiators in working towards a future relationship agreement with the UK, including for aviation. We are seeking an agreement on aviation which protects Ireland's connectivity to and through the UK and which allows for flexibility in commercial operations. Aviation is just one part of the overall agreement, however and, as we know, significant gaps remain on key issues, in particular the level playing field, governance and fisheries. These fundamental issues must be addressed to secure an overall agreement.
Irrespective of the outcome of the ongoing negotiations, the end of the Brexit transition period will bring changes compared with today and certain actions must be taken now to prepare for that change. On 9 September, the Government published an updated Brexit readiness action plan. This plan supports and promotes the necessary preparations for the end of the transition period. The plan includes a section on aviation, which gives advice to stakeholders on what they should do to be ready for the changes to come. This readiness work is supported by a major national communications campaign under the "Getting Ireland Brexit Ready" brand.
In addition, officials in my Department remain in close contact with aviation stakeholders to support their Brexit readiness.
On sustainability, the Government is committed to reducing the impact of air travel on the environment, and fully supports the push towards a resource-efficient and sustainable industry. This is reflected in the current national aviation policy and in Ireland's Action Plan for Aviation Emissions Reduction published in April 2019, which outlined a number of actions that will be taken over the coming years to reduce and offset the impact of air travel. The European Green Deal has brought renewed focus to this work. It outlines how climate change will be mitigated all over Europe and in all sectors in the coming years. The EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050 and reducing and offsetting aviation emissions will be a key part of this process.
I would like to take this opportunity to advise that I expect shortly to bring forward legislation to modernise and enhance the regulation of Irish aviation. The primary aim of this legislation is to establish a newly independent safety, security and economic regulator, putting in place new structures that meet the requirements of EU law and that better reflect international best practice. At present, Ireland has two aviation regulators: the Irish Aviation Authority and the Commission for Aviation Regulation. The plan is to merge these two entities, strengthen their capacity, improve their consumer and industry interface, and position Ireland for the future as a leading place to do business in global aviation. The text of the air navigation and transport Bill is expected to be ready soon, subject to Government approval, and I look forward to discussing it in more detail with Members of this Chamber when it comes before the House as part of the legislative process.
The Government has responded to the crisis affecting aviation and continues to do so. I will continue to maintain close contact with airports, airlines and all aviation stakeholders in the period ahead to ensure that we can safeguard Ireland's core connectivity, protect employment and position the sector to contribute to Ireland's post pandemic recovery.
I call on Senator Dooley.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and congratulate him on is recent appointment. I cannot overstate the impact that the pandemic is having on the aviation sector and all the ancillary businesses surrounding it, such as hospitality, tourism and business life in general. I can speak, with some level of experience, from the Clare perspective in the mid-west region, where Shannon Airport has been central to economic life for many generations. The unexpected fallout from Covid-19 has been devastating to the airport and the wider region. It has been devastating for those who work in the airport and in the hospitality and tourism sector, for example, in hotels, guesthouses and tourist attractions like pet farms overlooking the Cliffs of Moher. They have all been really impacted by the reduction in tourist numbers coming into the country, and we know why that is the case. That is the context in which I make my comments.
We have work to do in the short term to address the significant fallout from the pandemic for employees of Shannon Airport. Many of them are temporarily laid off or are back at work part time. They are finding it impossible to meet their financial commitments, notwithstanding the temporary wage subsidy scheme, and are struggling to survive. Workers had a standard of living built up around expected income. They are now under pressure which they never would have expected with mortgage repayments, education fees, car loans and all the normal expenditure. I am not saying that they work in a protected sector, but the workers would never have experienced anything like this before. There are people who have always known that they work in a precarious environment, but this is not the case with the employees of Shannon Airport. It has been a bolt out of the blue for those working for the airlines and in the airport.
We must look at how we can assist these workers immediately, in recognition of the fact that aviation activity is not going to resume soon. Earlier this week it struck me that we should try to find meaningful employment for airport workers in the short term.
I facilitated a meeting between senior management in both the HSE and the airport to ascertain whether staff temporarily laid off or in part-time work could avail of work opportunities in the HSE on the contact tracing side, if staff were prepared to do so. Both officials from the HSE and the airport are working to see if that can happen. Contact tracing work would be a small relief to some but we must think imaginatively as to how we can provide more assistance.
At some point there will be a vaccine or cure, so some degree of aviation activity will begin again. We must ensure during the ramp-up period that airlines do not go for the easy touch and operate all of the services out of the main airport of Dublin because such a move would kill regional development and give us no chance in the west, mid-west or south to recover in that regard. Even before the pandemic, the vast bulk of international aviation was going through Dublin. Shannon was not even keeping pace with the growth in tourism and was on the back foot anyway. We can debate the reasons that was the case and it would be an interesting debate.
The Minister of State has spoken about considering the future of regional airports and analysing where they sit overall and has stated we need to develop a policy. Let us do all that but first we must address the crisis. It is important that we provide certainty to the airports that we will stand behind them in this difficult time. We must provide certainty to the airlines on key routes, which I believe the Minister of State referred to as "core routes" in her statement. There will be a debate about that because not every route can be supported so we must consider the strategic routes. I put it to the Minister of State that the principal business and tourism routes are Shannon to Heathrow in England and from Shannon to New York and Boston on the east coast of the United States. People who live in my area will say that it is important to have support for the Shannon to Marbella route because they may have a holiday in the region. I will not advance that argument but instead call for support to be given to the key routes that are important for tourism and business, thus giving Shannon Airport, the airport of the mid-west, a chance to remain in existence during both this very difficult period and the really difficult time to come, when economic activity starts to ramp up again and when aviation resumes on a European and worldwide basis.
The Minister of State referred in her contribution to the PSO model that already exists for regional airports. We will have to consider it again in terms of domestic and international aviation links. As she said, we are an island so it is not just flights within Ireland but key routes. It will be a vexed debate but a necessary one because it is vitally important that we retain the key routes of connectivity into the region.
Regional development on the west coast had fallen behind. Some of the investment in road infrastructure was challenging and for far too long, we had been taking a backwards step in not giving more attention to developing the airfield. From a Shannon point of view, the focus of the Shannon Group, which is an amalgamation of the old Shannon Development properties, the airport and the tourism business, was on how well the property side was going. There was a failure to recognise that the airport is the driver of so much activity. The airport ensures that American golfers and tourists come here. These visitors walk along the Wild Atlantic Way, play golf along the western seaboard, stay in places like Dromoland Castle, the Clare Inn and many other hotels throughout County Clare. In terms of tourism, hospitality and aviation, we now need to identify what has been lost and what can be retained and to provide support for that, as well as what will be the key building blocks for the recovery phase.
There is another side, namely, the leasing business, which the Minister of State has talked about. Shannon was one of the cornerstones of aircraft leasing in this country through Guinness Peat Aviation, GPA, which went on to be a failed organisation. However, GPA left behind the seeds of very significant growth for that sector and was ahead of its time. As an entity it may not have been successful but it was a huge impetus for the development of the sector and industry in Ireland, which benefited the region. We need to consider ways to support the sector through this very difficult time whether that is through taxation measures or whatever.
I am conscious that people in that sector were involved in that forum and have ideas about it.
The Minister of State has noted that we are going to sign up to the European measures that are being introduced. It is really important that we do that. Some countries have indicated a desire to opt out. We need to fully opt in. For our own sake we must be at the forefront of accepting those measures and ensuring pan-European standards are met. Opting out of certain measures would be harmful. It is very clear from all the evidence emerging from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and elsewhere that Covid-19 will be with us for a considerable period of time. We will have to quickly pivot towards re-establishing economic activity. We must have parallel strategies to manage our economy as effectively as we can while limiting the spread of the virus to the greatest extent possible. There is a gamut of voices in the media, including medical professionals. The other night I listened with some amazement to one commentator who said we could suppress the virus completely if we all retreated into bunkers and let no-one into or out of the country. That thinking must be challenged vigorously, because such a course would be devastating for our economic life and the mental health of most people in this country. We must be very careful about that, but that debate is for another day.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is a great honour to have a fellow Galwegian here. I am sure Galway is very proud of Deputy Naughton's elevation to a ministerial post. We are very lucky to have someone of her talent taking on the job.
Covid-19 has devastated the international air transport industry, but it has also highlighted some of the grave errors in transport policy that have been made in recent times. I remember sitting in this Chamber when we were discussing selling off Aer Lingus. My colleague at the time, the then Senator Sean Barrett, was devastated that we were selling off the national airline. It is even more devastating to find that our two national airlines, Ryanair and Aer Lingus, began this crisis cash-rich and will finish it cash-poor. That will impact airline transport and connectivity in this country for aeons to come.
The other gaping hole in transportation policy is the lack of local representation on the boards of airports and harbours. The people on the ground know what is happening and can see the needs of local communities. Those needs are discussed by Deputies and Senators in these Houses when they should be debated and worked on by county councils. These things are becoming clear as this crisis goes on.
The Minister of State also mentioned our indebtedness to the pilots and crew who flew to China to bring PPE back to this country. I am extremely grateful to them and very proud of the work they did. However, the downside of that story is the fact that our Defence Forces are one of the few armed forces in Europe with no heavy airlift capacity. For our Air Corps to be left without that capacity is a crime. We contract out air ambulance services. Perhaps we should look at these issues right now and see how we can use our resources to overcome them.
There are two aspects to the aviation supports we are talking about. We have to maintain the airline companies I have been speaking about and the air leasing capacity for which this country has built a phenomenal international reputation. However, as a former trade union leader my heart must be with the workers on the ground, who have seen their incomes slashed and see no prospect of returning to any kind of work in the future.
Their situation is no different to that of any of the workers in the hospitality industry who have been laid off but some of these people were earning massive sums as pilots and so on and suddenly find themselves on €300 a week. The airline sector is suffering desperately and the workers within it are suffering even more. I welcome Senator Dooley's suggestion of offering alternative employment commensurate with the Covid crisis, such as employment in contact tracing and so on. Perhaps we can look at something in that regard.
We need to maintain routes. If that means sending an empty aircraft once a week on some of the routes that are not now being serviced, perhaps that is something we should do. Perhaps we could look outside the box. I was speaking to my colleague, Senator Byrne, about opening direct routes from Rosslare, Cork and Waterford to the heart of Europe. While we wait for that to happen, there may be an opportunity to replicate what happened in Berlin in the 1960s and organise a direct airlift into Europe. We could utilise aircraft that are sitting on the ground to support the import and export industry and to build new routes in that respect which do not include the United Kingdom because we are clearly going to have difficulties going through that jurisdiction. As we speak about strategic connectivity, we have an opportunity to fly directly into the heart of Europe to facilitate imports and exports. We should look at this rather than leaving aircraft on the ground.
I wish the recovery task force well but we are dealing with an open-ended crisis. Nobody knows when it will end. I acknowledge that the Minister of State is putting in place a team, which will be up to speed and ready to grab any opportunity that arises to get the airline industry up and running as quickly as possible. I appreciate her commitment to what she is doing.
I agree with Senator Dooley. We have all seen comments on social media asking why we did not lock down Ireland, close all the ports and so on. At the end of the day, we cannot afford to lock down the country. We need some sort of connectivity with the rest of the world, although it must be as safe as possible. I would, however, like to see testing at airports improved. The other day, I was talking to people who had arrived back from Greece and I was rather shocked. As they came through the airport, they were given some advice with respect to isolation but they have not been contacted since coming back to find out if they are okay or whether they have a high temperature or anything like that. We have a bit of work to do on that side. We also need rapid testing on site. Tests for Covid are now coming online, which we need to examine. We need to see if we can get access to those tests and use them.
I see what is happening in the tourism industry and the impact the airline industry's situation is having on it. I had great respect for what was happening in Cork in particular. Cork Airport was dynamic in driving initiatives. I am not from Cork and I have no geographical interest in it other than that it is part of this island. The work being done in Cork has been crashed into the ground as a result of Covid. For many years we have been listening to people speaking about the work being done at Shannon Airport. Again, Covid has set the airport back ten years or perhaps more.
It is a matter of supporting and coming in behind the industry and putting in all of the resources that are required. I want to see aircraft in the air and I believe that, in looking at the idea of air routes for imports and exports, there is an opportunity to get people in the airline industry back to work and paid decent salaries. I ask the Minister of State to look at the idea and to discuss it with her Cabinet colleagues to see if there is a way in which these routes could be looked at. One of the problems with the land bridge, should Brexit go wrong, will be getting perishable goods to the heart of Europe in a short time. As goods are delivered over there, I am sure others could come back. We import flowers from Holland, for example. While it might be an expensive way to do business, at least it would keep people employed in the industry, particularly pilots who need to keep their flying hours up. It is important to keep them in the air. I also refer to the service staff, the maintenance staff and the airport staff.
I ask the Minister of State to go back to her Department and to the Cabinet and to suggest that we look outside the box to see how we can get more aircraft in the air and more people flying. I thank the Minister of State again. I am sure Galway is proud to have her sitting here.
I thank the Senator for his co-operation with regard to time as a good few Senators are offering.
I also welcome Deputy Naughton to the House on her first official visit as Minister of State. I recall when she became a Senator in 2013. Her rise has been spectacular but it has been grounded in humility. It is the result of a sharp intellect and hard work. I wish her all the best. I know she will do a phenomenal job. She has taken on a critical role at a very difficult time.
I listened to what Senator Dooley had to say and I find myself in agreement with most of his analysis. I welcome the initiative in which he has engaged with regard to the HSE, staff at the airport and any marrying up that can be done with regard to contact tracing. This is an extraordinarily difficult time for all staff in all the airports in this country. Earlier I heard that as many as 5 million jobs may be lost in the aviation industry as a result of this pandemic. That is a very sobering thought. This is a worldwide problem but we are, of course, interested in our own patch.
We are an island nation so aviation is extremely important to us. We can be enormously proud of our tradition and heritage in respect of aviation. To a large extent, we invented aircraft leasing. Guinness Peat Aviation, GPA, was a groundbreaking, worldwide company although it was ahead of its time. We can see the results of its work today in what Ennis businessman, Dómhnal Slattery, has achieved with Avolon and in what others have achieved in companies such as Genworth. These companies are still operating. I was speaking earlier to somebody who works in Genworth and there are more people who are not paying for the leasing of planes than people who are. It is easy to count those who are paying these days and that is a worldwide problem. It is the same in China, America and Russia and throughout the world.
I consider Shannon Airport to be the anchor tenant of the mid-west just as Dunnes Stores might be the anchor tenant in a shopping centre. The region depends on it and, when it is not operating, the region does not operate efficiently or effectively. Before Covid-19 emerged as a problem, there were difficulties in Shannon. Dublin passenger numbers were not capped so Shannon Airport was competing against a monster. This was extremely difficult. The effort made to gain independence for Shannon Airport in 2012 and 2013 was supported by industry and business representatives across the board. As a matter of fact, Senator Dooley and myself were two of only a few voices from the region to register a cautionary note. The word "objection" might be too strong but I certainly articulated a contrarian view at the time. I could not see how Shannon Airport could compete against Dublin Airport as an independent entity unless it received enormous support from central government, which was not going to be possible. My concerns have been proven correct. There could have been a sensible realignment of the airport's position within the DAA group.
Cork did not decouple from the DAA, but it was performing well. Obviously, it is facing challenges now and Senator Buttimer will speak about those in due course.
I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, her officials and the Department are reviewing the structure of Shannon Airport. That is important. We need a national aviation policy. Connectivity, particularly with Heathrow, is critical for Shannon. I agree with Senator Dooley that we must keep business connectivity in mind. We will each be lobbied about various holiday resorts around Europe, but that is not the priority. What we want is quality connectivity, not yellow-pack connectivity.
We will have to undertake a root and branch review of, and rebuild, our aviation industry. I am looking forward to clarity being provided on 13 October at the meeting in Brussels. It will be important. As an island nation, we need connectivity, not just in our capital city, but along the west coast as well. We need connectivity with Heathrow and the east coast of America. We also need connectivity with hubs like Schiphol.
A great deal can be said. As the Minister of State well knows as someone from Galway, thousands of people along the west coast are on a knife's edge because they do not know whether they will still have a business as a result of Covid-19 or whether those involved in business will have jobs. The aviation industry, in particular Shannon Airport, has a critical role to play when we come to a post-Covid era, which I hope will emerge in the not-too-distant future thanks to vaccines.
I will make brief point on an issue that I have been raising with the Minister of State in recent months, namely, political representation on the Shannon board. She has taken that on board. Perhaps the representative could be an executive from a local authority in the region. Whatever future structure is being considered, though, there must be linkages with people who know tourism. Clare County Council, in particular, has a fantastic record of building tourism numbers and products, for example, the Cliffs of Moher visitor experience.
The Senator has one minute remaining.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach is a good timekeeper. Clare County Council built the cliffs from 400,000 or 500,000 visitors per year to almost 2 million in 2019. That type of expertise will help to inform those of us in the region. Whatever new structure is put in place in Shannon, the input must be balanced and professional and have the linkages that we need.
I wish the Minister of State all the best in what is a challenging, difficult but potentially very rewarding portfolio.
The Minister of State is welcome. It is nice to see her and I congratulate her on her appointment. Like me, she was a member of the eighth amendment committee. I remember her as a constructive voice on that committee. It is good to have her in her current role and I wish her well.
I will start with the point raised by Senator Craughwell concerning Aer Lingus. It was a fundamental mistake to sell off the remaining stake in Aer Lingus. Indeed, it was a fundamental mistake to sell off the company in the first place. We have seen how our lack of leverage at this crucial time has played out. We have seen the struggle that Aer Lingus workers have experienced just to get social welfare supports from the company.
Last week, my colleague spoke to the Minister of State's colleague about how the final stake in Aer Lingus had been sold off for €335 million. That money was put into the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF. We have checked - only €90 million of that fund has been spent. Clearly, Aer Lingus will need a capital injection. Should we not be actively considering retaking a stake in the company? Instead of just throwing money at the company to keep it in Ireland, why do we not buy a stake? We would get very good value right now and it would enable us to have a greater impact, not just in keeping the Heathrow slots in Shannon, but on the wider issue of climate change and how the company responded to same. It would be the right time to do that.
A key theme that I will keep raising is the need for new thinking. We are in an incredible crisis. The Minister of State has outlined some of the supports available to airports, which are welcome. She will know that there is a difference of opinion between Sinn Féin and the Government regarding the change from the temporary wage subsidy scheme to the emergency wage subsidy scheme. It was a retrograde step and the support should have been continued. However, I acknowledge that important supports are in place. They are simply not enough. Will the Minister of State say whether the Government is actively considering a stake in Aer Lingus? I would encourage it to.
She mentioned the green list, which I will reference briefly. We subscribe to the idea of a European green list, but we have a concern. Ireland needs to be ready in terms of testing and tracing at airports when the list comes into place. The Government has not as yet outlined its plans and preparations in that regard. It would be a pity if, having subscribed to the green list, our resources were found wanting. I take Senator Dooley's point about trying to relocate people, but perhaps we need to prepare workers to come back in and help with the crucial testing and tracing work, if possible.
I hope it will not surprise the Minister of State that the key theme I wish to discuss is that of Shannon Airport, and not just because I am the only Limerick representative in the Chamber. Shannon has been poorly served by successive Governments. I welcome Senator Conway's comments on the major mistake - let us be clear that it was a mistake - made in separating Shannon. I will provide clarity lest anyone believe it was not a mistake. Let us consider the importance of Shannon versus Cork. Cork has its own concerns, but its passenger numbers increased by 7.7% in 2016. Shannon's increased by 2%. In 2017, there was effectively no increase in Shannon whereas there was a 3.5% increase in Cork. In 2018, there was a 6.5% increase in Shannon versus 3.7% in Cork. Last year, there was a decrease of 8% in Shannon. In 2019, Cork had 2.5 million passengers and Shannon had 1.7 million. Cork is within the DAA umbrella whereas Shannon, as an independent airport, has failed.
I am glad that we were on record at the time, and have been consistently ever since, that it was a major mistake to separate Shannon. The workers in the airport and their trade unions have been clear. At a recent meeting with the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, they once again made the case for reintegrating Shannon into the DAA. I am worried, though, because the Minister's response to that key question for the workers and their families and for the future of the airport was that it would take two to three years to do so. He stated that he honestly did not believe the Government would do it. I appeal to the Minister of State and her colleague to engage in new thinking on this issue. As I have just demonstrated through those figures, the current model is fundamentally broken. This is not an issue of political ideology, but of common sense. Shannon does not have the leverage to win deals with international airlines by itself. It cannot compete with Dublin on its own, a point echoed by Senator Conway.
The only way that we will rebuild aviation when the Covid crisis ends - please God, that will be next year - is through collective leverage. This means reintegrating Shannon into the DAA alongside Cork. It might also mean including Ireland West Airport Knock, given my concerns for its future as well. We would use that collective leverage to ensure proper regional balance.
Here is the stark fact. The airport workers know it. They have said it to me, as have the trade unions. If there is not a fundamental change in policy and the Government does not recognise the folly of leaving Shannon as a stand-alone airport, those Heathrow slots will go in the next six months. Shannon does not have the leverage to keep them. Ryanair and Aer Lingus have threatened to close down for the winter entirely and we do not know whether they would come back. However, we do know that the collective leverage of Dublin, Shannon, Cork and Ireland West Airport Knock would enable us to tell Aer Lingus that, although it could come back, it would have to ensure that, as it rebuilt its flights, it included Shannon and Cork. Without that, we will be left behind.
Without that, in the very same way we will not have enough leverage to keep those crucial flights to the east coast of America.
The review is ongoing for Shannon and to be honest, I do not understand why. We know what needs to be done and one of the frustrations is that, to date, we really have not got any concrete answers. In her speech today the Minister of State has referred to things we hope will happen in the near future but she did not deal with the crucial point on Shannon's place within the airport network. I ask her to do that today, while taking on board not just my concerns but the concerns echoed by Senator Conway. I know Senator Dooley is on record as having similar concerns and my colleague, Deputy Wynne, has been the clearest of all representatives in Clare saying that the current model is fundamentally wrong and that Shannon must be reintegrated into DAA.
I take no pleasure in saying we will all lose if Shannon continues to fail. If the Minister of State and her colleague, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, do not take issue on this matter and recognise what has not worked over the past seven years before reintegrating Shannon into the DAA structure, we will lose Shannon as an international airport. That is not an exaggeration but it is a fact. The Minister of State does not have to take my word for it. She can speak to the workers at Shannon Airport or their trade unions and they will say this in the clearest possible terms.
I appeal to the Minister of State and other representatives across the west and mid-west to echo my call to bring Shannon back into an integrated network of airports in order that we can use the collective leverage of all to ensure a future for Shannon and the west.
I thank the Minister of State for coming in to address us today. It is not an overstatement to say the growth of the airline and aviation industry in Ireland transformed our fortunes in the 1990s, particularly in regional settings. We are a small island reliant on access to the outside world for our economic well-being and global and social connections.
Covid-19 has put the aviation industry under major pressure. It has surpassed the effect of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when we thought passenger numbers would collapse. This has come at a time of a perfect storm arising from the challenges of climate change and Brexit. As the industry supports 4,000 jobs directly and 100,000 jobs indirectly, thousands of jobs are at risk as a result of the collapse in passenger numbers.
I will speak a little about workers in the aviation industry and particularly workers in the retail sectors of airports, as I have not heard them included in this debate. My colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, has supported Estée Lauder workers in Dublin Fingal, where cuts have been made to the workforce and there have been enforced pay cuts and redundancies as a result of what they say is the changing retail environment. These are good quality jobs that have existed in north Dublin and they are now under threat.
If the State is looking to subsidise airports and the aviation industry, that support must be somewhat conditional on ensuring that worker rights will be protected and workers will be able negotiate collectively. Assets should also be protected if workers are being forced to take redundancy, so we should not see a position like that which arose with Debenhams, where workers have been fobbed off with statutory redundancy.
We need both the State and stakeholders to work together to ensure airlines support these industries. I am surprised that in the comprehensive address made by the Minister of State, she did not mention the potential kite flying by Aer Lingus of building some of its operations in the UK and bypassing Shannon in the process. It looks like under the cover of Covid-19, Aer Lingus is moving to cost-cutting or savings measures by going to the UK. I thought the Minister of State would have addressed the subject.
I echo the points made by my colleague, Senator Gavan, on the selling of our stake in Aer Lingus and privatising our national airline. When we see the kite flying I have mentioned, it seems such a sale has left us in a position where we do not really have leverage. A key element such as transatlantic flights from Shannon could potentially move to the north of England and there is very little leverage for us to exercise with Aer Lingus. We made that mistake and people pointed it out at the time. The country has a small, open economy that is highly reliant on the aviation industry for connectivity and transformation.
We lost that key leverage.
I will not take the full eight minutes but I will leave the Minister of State with this point. It is a key point to support the aviation industry and regional airports. It is vital for regional development. Anything we do should be conditional on supporting workers. It is inevitable that there will be some job losses because of the shock to the industry but we must ensure any State support given is on the condition that workers involved in the aviation industry or its connected retail sector in airports are protected. They must not be left thrown out on the streets with just statutory redundancy.
It is great to see another strong woman from the west getting up the ranks. I congratulate the Minister of State and look forward to working with her. I have a few points on the aviation industry and road transport while we have her ear. I am sure she is just as aware as everybody else in the room of all the problems so I will not waste time describing them. Instead I will focus on some suggested actions and solutions.
I remind the Minister of State that we are in a climate crisis as well as a Covid-19 crisis. There are solutions to both that could be married. Looking at the location of Shannon Airport and the length of its runway, we can bring in flights with 3% less carbon emissions than those which go to other airports. It is something we should take on board, particularly if we are trying to tackle the large fines we face from Europe because of our carbon emissions. We have enough going on with Brexit and Covid-19 without having to pay fines for carbon emissions as well. I ask the Minister of State to look into that and possibly use climate action as part of the argument for regional rebalancing.
Shannon Airport happens to be near the best place in the world in County Clare and it brings everybody to the Wild Atlantic Way, which has been a major success story for Ireland. When tourists come to Dublin, they spend much time, money and carbon trying to come to the west, so through regional rebalancing we should bring them to places where tourists really want to go along the Wild Atlantic Way. Shannon is the heartbeat of the entire region and there is no option to even think about the airport not surviving. It must thrive into the future.
To that end, I am an optimist and I have faith in the survival of Shannon Airport. Will the Government consider strongly the provision of a proper rail service to Shannon Airport from the Limerick to Ennis line? It is approximately eight miles from Sixmilebridge to Shannon and we must look properly at that idea. When we go abroad, we always expect to get a train from an international airport to a town so we should look at that option. Let us be optimistic, look forward and consider this rail service for Shannon Airport.
I will also speak to developing the Shannon Estuary. The transport of goods is part of the Minister of State's remit and Moneypoint is closing, so we will be losing jobs in the west. However, we could develop the estuary area as a shipping route for cargo. I would like the Government to consider this as an option as part of the just transition to replace some of the jobs that may be lost from fossil fuel industries.
We ship everything in Ireland with trucks. This was best practice in the 1990s but we must reconsider this model. Trucks are great because they carry large quantities of goods but they come with much danger. Every year the Road Safety Authority spends much money advertising the dangers of blind spots that trucks have, instead of saying it is madness to have something that big and heavy driving around the country and especially some of our small rural roads. Why are the cabins not being redesigned or why are we not considering giving limited access for trucks to cities and towns?
Our country was not designed for large trucks in city or town centres. The best practice from Europe is for trucks to stop at the outskirts of towns and cities, with goods being offloaded to smaller vans. Companies such as UPS and An Post have switched to using electric cargo bikes. It is crazy to think we bring wide trucks on roads that are so narrow. My town of Ennis has narrow streets and some have recently been pedestrianised but trucks are trying to turn or deliver goods on them. It is madness.
If one goes to other parts of Europe, where they have copped on to this, trucks are not allowed into such areas. I feel really strongly about not allowing trucks into our towns and villages because they are dangerous. They serve a purpose coming from ports and I understand that. A redesign of cabins must also be examined seriously because there have been so many road fatalities as a result of truck blind spots. The Government funds advertising on blind spots in trucks when really the cabins should be redesigned, as they were with buses.
I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in her new role.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I had the good fortune to speak to her about ports this morning and am pleased to speak to her about airports this afternoon. I share some of my colleagues' concerns about us no longer having a stake in Aer Lingus at this crucial time. I would remind Senator Moynihan, however, that the Labour Party supported the sale of the airline. Indeed, the party lost its Deputy for Clare over the sale of Aer Lingus. Another issue at the time concerned the price that was paid. The value of Aer Lingus was significantly higher when the IAG group took it over.
I want to concentrate on our current challenges in terms of aviation policy. As an island, we are very much dependent on connectivity by sea and air. We are an open economy with a strong emphasis on tourism so we must maximise connectivity through shipping routes and airline connections. Airports in recent years in Ireland have been particularly successful at expanding routes and increasing passenger numbers. In the last 20 years the airline industry has been hit by three big crises. After the 9/11 crisis there were issues around safety and people wanting to be certain it was safe to fly; in Asia the SARS crisis was a public health crisis which inhibited flying in that region; and after the financial crisis there were issues around the affordability of flying and the viability of airlines. The reality is that the aviation sector is now facing all three of those challenges at the same time. This does not even take into account the challenges mentioned by Senator Garvey around climate change and Brexit. While there are projections from the industry that we will see a bounce back, with short haul bouncing back by around 2023 and long haul bouncing back by around 2025, in reality medium term capacity is going to be down by about 20% to 25%.
The Government set up a task force on aviation which made a number of very solid recommendations. I would like the Minister of State to outline in her response how far the Government has got in responding to the recommendations in the July report of the task force which was chaired by Mr. Chris Horn. One of the key issues, as Senator Gavan and others said, is track and trace and I would cite Keflavik Airport in Reykjavik as being particularly successful in this regard. Frankfurt and other airports have also been successful. How far have we got in terms of ensuring that we have an effective track and trace regime at Irish airports?
We need to instill confidence in people to get them flying again. I welcome the fact that we are finally moving to the EU-wide traffic light system because the current system is a joke. The green list, quite frankly, makes absolutely no sense. Liechtenstein is currently on our green list. I have been there and it is a lovely country but there is no airport there. One can only get to Liechtenstein via Switzerland or Austria, neither of which is on the green list. Damage is also being done to our reputation. If, for example, Portugal has Ireland on its green list but we do not have Portugal on ours, that damages our reputation. The sooner we move to a common EU green list that makes sense the better.
A question that will have to be faced at a European level, with a Europe-wide approach, is that of subsidising passengers in order to encourage people to fly again. If we do not get passengers back flying, the next step will be bailing out the airports. Our airports are profitable but only when they have passengers. We have got to look at ways of increasing the number of passengers moving through airports.
While Brexit was mentioned by the Minister of State, she did not deal with one issue of major concern, which is the fact that UK will not be subject to state aid rules after 1 January 2021. We can forget about the British Conservative party in the era of Margaret Thatcher; the Johnson Government is very much about bailing out industries, particularly in areas with marginal Conservative seats. There is no doubt that it will pump money into supporting industries in trouble, including airports. At a time we are looking to maintain routes, never mind increasing them, Irish airports are going to be competing with airports in Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere in the UK. At the same time, the UK will not be subject to state aid rules and the British Government will pump money into those airports. It is going to be increasingly difficult. Colleagues mentioned transatlantic routes but if the UK Government starts to bail out airports, we need to put supports in place. I look forward to the Minister of State's response on that.
Finally, the aviation task force made a number of useful recommendations and I am interested to know how they are being implemented. We need both a short-term and long-term strategy in aviation policy.
I welcome the Minister of State, who is representing Galway and the west. It is also great to see such able representation of the west by so many Senators. The Minister of State has responsibility for international road transport and logistics. I thank her and her departmental team for the level of detail provided to the House today. Indeed, the detail and statistics that have been given are shocking. I recall running for the local elections last year and speaking about the fact that 32 million passengers had been through the airports in Ireland at that time and that we had a lot of disposable income in our country. I talked about the importance of tourism to our country and of driving it for the west. At the end of 2019, a total of 38 million passengers had gone through Irish airports but today the figure is 1% of that total. The impact of Covid-19 and the crisis that has hit the sector is shocking and difficult to comprehend.
All of this highlights how we have taken things for granted. In the 1980s, we used to think of airports as places to go to emigrate. Luckily the progress we experienced in more recent decades meant that people were going to airports two or three times a year, taking flights for weekend breaks or summer holidays. Airports were also so important for business and industry. Consumer confidence is crucial to this sector. As an island nation, we take air travel for granted but we must remember the importance of competition that was introduced with the arrival of the likes of Ryanair. Prior to that Aer Lingus had a monopoly and flights were incredibly expensive. We must ensure that the aviation sector maintains its competitive nature in the time ahead.
The Minister of State realistically forecasts that it will be 2023 or 2024 before air travel returns to pre-Covid levels. In that context, long-term investment will be required for the sector. The Government has put Covid-related supports in place in many areas, including the wage subsidy scheme, the deferral of commercial rates, low-cost loans and so on but aviation needs long-term supports out to 2023 or 2024. How do we support the sector in maintaining more than 40,000 jobs and surviving the challenges it faces? In terms of FDI, multinationals in Ireland support in excess of 250,000 jobs. IDA Ireland is trying to conduct site visits online at the moment. How will the authority get investment across the line after initial online visits? It will be through bringing people into the country. In that context, how do we ensure that we maintain core connectivity on the routes to which the Minister of State referred, namely to Europe, the USA and other key airports that are crucial to FDI in Ireland?
We look forward to the development of a vaccine, with the potential for successful clinical trials in 2021. Our testing capability has increased. I welcome the news in the Minister of State's report that testing in airports is being looking at, hopefully in the short term, to ensure that non-essential travel can be allowed in line with European guidelines. That too will be down to consumer confidence. We have to ensure the survival of this sector and we have to do that in a way that maintains safety. That will involves testing and maintaining consumer confidence. The role each country plays in keeping the R number down is crucial.
I ask the Minister of State for more information on the core connectivity routes. Perhaps an official in the Department will be able to come back to me on that at another stage.
On the regional airports, I was pleased to hear the Minister of State speak about the five-year plan for regional airports that she will be working on. This is important for us in Galway because we do not have an international airport. We depend on Ireland West Airport Knock and Shannon Airport. It is crucial for the multinationals, including the medical technology, healthcare and life sciences companies in the Galway city area, which impact on the regional and rural areas of counties Roscommon, Galway, Mayo and Sligo.
Ireland West Airport Knock is located in a region in transition in the west. Region in transition status means GDP per capita in the area in question is between 75% and 100% of the EU 27 average. I am curious to know what other supports have been put in place for Ireland West Airport Knock as part of that EU region in transition designation. It is great the airport has confirmed it will carry out pre-flight coronavirus tests as part of a proposed EU system. From what I understand, the system will be agreed with other member states and approved by EU foreign ministers next month.
I thank the Minister of State and wish her all the best in her new role.
I will not take up five minutes to allow other Members to have their say. Aviation has been crushed by what I call the big C, namely, Covid-19. We all realise that we have to be careful, stick by the rules and regulations and fight Covid but we need to bring into this debate a message of living with the virus while being careful. For this reason, it is good the Minister of State is here and we are discussing the aviation sector. Coming from the west, she is committed to our regional airports. There is no doubt about her commitment in that respect.
I fully support Shannon Airport. Our regional airports, in particular Ireland West Airport Knock, are vital arteries in the economies of the west and north west. They are used by people coming and going on holiday and a significant number of workers use them to get to and from work. These workers are vital to our economy.
I take my hat off to the manager of Ireland West Airport Knock, Mr. Joe Gilmore, and his staff. They have been brilliant and they reflect what that airport is all about. I mention Monsignor James Horan, who took the initiative many years ago and was told by the State that the site at Knock was nothing more than a foggy and boggy plateau and nothing would ever come of it. As the Minister of State and Senators know, the airport at Knock has become one of the greatest developments on our island. It has been phenomenal in providing a vital link for the west. That is why we need supports for the aviation sector, particularly Ireland West Airport Knock. The sector also needs financial support. People say the Government needs money for everything and ask where it will get money but if we do not get aviation up and running, the revenue lost from tourism will have a huge effect on the economy.
That will not only be the case in 2021 and 2022 but it will go on for years. We must give the aviation sector financial support, we must improve testing at our airports and we must ensure that we have a plan going forward.
I point out to Members that Roscommon, Mayo, Galway, Sligo and Leitrim county councils put forward €8 million in recent years to support that airport. That shows the commitment that exists for the airport and it shows how vital it is.
Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht a ceapachán. This is an important debate that transcends party politics and Members should be having a rolling debate on it because this is not just about the airlines or airports but is about the workers and the connectivity of the island of Ireland.
The option of testing does not just need to be explored but it needs to be expedited as a matter of urgency. There cannot be any more questions about testing. There must be testing in our airports. We have all concluded and agree that connectivity is critical to us as an island nation. The Minister of State spoke about our success as a country being reliant on international connectivity. Now that we are living with Covid-19 and hopefully post Covid-19, that is absolutely crucial. We all accept that there must a cautious approach and that public health must be at the forefront of what we do. Even if we take Dr. Cillian De Gascun's comment that 30% of testing at airports gets missed or is wrong, however, that still leaves us an option. It is not about when aviation resumes but it is that aviation must resume and rapid testing must be part of that.
This morning, the managing director of Cork Airport said in an interview that preflight testing is essential if we are to save tens of thousands of jobs and he asked how we are to live for the next two years until a vaccine is made available. From a Cork perspective, the routes to London Heathrow and Amsterdam are vital for connectivity. I appreciate that the Minister of State visited Cork Airport. I commend her on her proactivity and thank her for that, in her time as a Minister of State. Cork Airport is a major hub airport. It is Ireland's second international airport and had been the fastest growing airport on the island of Ireland. The figures speak for themselves. There were 23,000 passengers this year compared with 239,000 last year. Some 46 routes operated in 2019 and 25 have operated this year. That paints its own picture. I will make the point I made in this Chamber before. I have been in Cork Airport at least six times since this pandemic began to meet workers, management and ancillary staff. Any Members who have used Cork Airport will fully understand my next sentence. One can hear the wind whistling in the terminal building upstairs in the departures area.
RTÉ news had a report on Monday night on Dublin Airport. There is no pun intended but one could land a jumbo jet inside of the concourse that is its departures area. That is the magnitude of what the country is facing with its aviation sector. I am not flying a flag for the airlines. I am flying a flag for our airports and for the workers who people have spoken about here, who have opted into a voluntary redundancy scheme, who have changed their work practices and who are now on 80% of their work time and are taking pay cuts. Workers in airports have made their decision to keep the airports open and the management teams in the airports have worked night and day. I commend the management teams and workers on and thank them for the work they have done up to now.
Pre-departure testing is critical. The economy and people cannot stay cut off from the world for the next two years. Those are not my words, they are the words of the chief executive of Cork Airport this morning. I made the point to the Minister of State yesterday on the Commencement that Cork Airport requires operating expenditure, OPEX. It is the only airport in the country which is not getting State funding in respect of its operations. While I appreciate that there are demands and challenges which the Minister of State and her Department have to face, I am unashamedly speaking for Cork today. There is no point in Cork having a Taoiseach and two Cabinet Ministers if they cannot deliver for Cork Airport as well. I call on the Taoiseach, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to deliver for Cork Airport. They have an obligation to support our airport and they must do so.
I appeal to the Minister of State in the context of Cork and also in the context of our aviation sector. The Minister of State referred to Ireland being an island nation and spoke about connectivity. It is critical that we keep our airports open. To those who say it is about the airlines, it is not. What about the search and rescue missions that have taken place since 16 March? What about the patients who have had to go abroad for transplants and the body parts that had to be delivered for transplant? What about the men and women who have been injured on our oceans in different ways and have had to be landed at an airport? That is why our airports are being kept open. It is critical.
There is a vacancy relating to Cork on the Dublin Airport Authority and it should be filled as a matter of urgency. I will assist the Minister of State in filling that post, if she wishes, because there are very fine candidates from Cork who deserve to be put on the board.
I thank the Minister of State for her proactivity. She has been accessible and proactive, and has made great efforts. I know she is struggling with different competing interests, like every Minister or Minister of State, but this is very important. This is about our people. It is about jobs, north, south, east and west.
I welcome the Minister of State. As she and I know, a decade ago we lost our airport in Galway. At the time, we did not imagine we would be facing a situation where there would be a possibility of losing Ireland West, Shannon or Cork airports, although, hopefully, that will not be the case. Of course, the loss of Galway Airport at the time was based on the withdrawal of the public service obligation, PSO, as the new Galway to Dublin motorway opened.
Shannon, Ireland West and Cork are not just airports. They are intrinsic to their regions and their counties and, in the case of Shannon and Cork, intrinsic to Limerick city and Cork city, respectively. They provide much-needed employment to their areas and they provide connectivity to the west, the mid-west and the south. We know the foreign direct investment, FDI, sector is very important to Galway, Limerick and Cork. If travel ever comes back, companies that are headquartered and based in the United States will again rely on access to meet boards and management in those areas, which is very important.
We need to grow these areas. The Atlantic economic corridor, stretching from Donegal through the western counties, through Clare and Limerick and on to Cork, is something of which I am extremely supportive. It is something we need to grasp and promote. We need to connect the west and not allow it to be dismantled. To be parochial with regard to Ireland West Airport, as Senator Murphy said, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo and Roscommon county councils and Galway city and county councils, on the basis of decisions they made, have a shareholding in the airport. That is a positive stamp of approval in regard to the importance of Ireland West Airport.
Last year, 2019, was a record one for the airport, which enjoyed growth of 5.4%, was served by Aer Lingus, Flybe and Ryanair and which added new routes from Germany.
The year 2020 was forecast to be an equally strongly performing year but we know the impact of Covid. Flybe, a long-term partner airline in Ireland West Airport, was hit and ceased trading. The airport was closed from 30 March until 30 June and it is projected revenues for the year will decline by some €11 million, which will have a huge impact on the facility.
We need to be bold and ambitious. Senator Garvey spoke of the Shannon rail network connection, which I wholeheartedly support, but we first have to save the airport as we have to make sure there is an airport there to connect with. I agree rail is something we need to look at but we need to secure the airport as well. Transatlantic services are key to that, as is expansion to key tourist destinations in Europe.
In its communications, Ireland West Airport has called on the Government, in advance of next month's budget, to commit to providing urgent supports to an expanded regional airports programme for the airport to address the extraordinary financial losses projected for 2020 as a result of the travel restrictions and the impact of Covid-19. It wants to implement the recommendations of the recently published aviation task force report for 2020, to which the airport was a member contributor, and put in place the appropriate financial supports with airlines to support and incentivise the restoration of critical air access into the west and north west. It wants to adopt the European Commission's traffic light system to open up international travel across Europe immediately, while ensuring a high level of human health protection. This will facilitate the timely opening up of key markets for the airport, particularly in the UK, in a safe manner over the winter period.
I agree with others that the green list has not worked and I think we need to adopt a Europe-wide approach to our airports to secure their short-term future and, more importantly, their medium-term and long-term future. We will get over Covid at some stage in the future but we do not want a situation where, when we finally get the all-clear and Covid either dies out miraculously or due to a vaccination programme, we have to come in here to ask why more supports were not provided for Shannon, Ireland West and Cork airports.
I wish the Minister of State well in her role. I know she will be a strong advocate at Cabinet for the airports in the west and south. That support can and must be provided.
I thank Senators for their contributions. I am acutely aware of the challenges and pressures for the airlines, the airports and those thousands of people working in the industry across the country, not to mention our reliance as an island nation on foreign direct investment and on ensuring we maintain connectivity. The Senators can be assured that the Government and my Department are working very hard at a cross-departmental level in regard to the financial supports. We could see that in the Government's reaction at the outset of Covid in putting in place those supports.
With regard to the aviation task force, I outlined some of the measures. I want to thank all of the contributors to the task force report, which is a very important piece of work that will contribute to the aviation sector. As part of that, we have implemented the extension of the wage subsidies to April 2021. We have published the national Covid health safety protocol for air travel and the extension of the airport slots waiver for the winter season, which is critical. It was recognised at a European level that we need to protect our slots and this was done by the European Commission. We are working nationally and at a European level to try to open up our airspace and to do so with public health at the heart of all our decisions to make sure we can do this at a European level. I wanted to outline those issues.
I reiterate that aviation provides a large number of high-value jobs and generates many more in the wider economy, especially in the tourism sector.
As to the importance of Shannon Airport for the mid-west region, and the spin-offs that it provides, I agree with those who have spoken here today, such as Senators Conway and Dooley, that it is critical. It is something that we are very much focused on at Government level.
The current crisis is the most challenging the aviation industry has ever faced. As I previously stated, the forecasts do no anticipate a return to 2019 levels of activity until 2023 or 2024. The question of when aviation business might begin to return in a meaningful way is clearly linked to the evolution of the Covid-19 virus and the ongoing travel restrictions. The current estimate of airport passenger numbers for this year is at 25% of the 2019 levels, and there is continuing uncertainty ahead. It is the uncertainty that makes it difficult to make decisions. The European Council meeting being held on 9 October 2020 will provide some clarity to the Government regarding the supports that will be needed beyond that date.
Testing, and ensuring that we can do so in a robust way, where we are not compromising the capacity of the testing system in Ireland, is also very much at the forefront of our deliberations. Whatever plan we put into place has to be robust and stand up, and people must have confidence in it. Many Senators have alluded to the confidence required for people to be willing to fly.
To assist businesses and protect employment, the Government acted early in the Covid crisis to introduce unprecedented measures of wage supports and other measures to assist businesses, including those in the aviation sector, such as airlines and airports. These businesses were also able to avail of substantial Government support. I have visited many airports since my appointment as Minister of State. It was one of the first things I did throughout the summer, in order to get a real understanding of the issues at hand. I must commend the work and dedication of the staff working in our airports and for our airlines. It has been a very challenging time for them and they, like us, are grappling with uncertainty. We must put in place life-support measures to sustain this industry, so that when there is a vaccine for Covid-19, the industry can get back up and running.
Mention was made today of the State and regional airports. We all recognise the importance of connectivity for those coming from the west of Ireland, both socially and economically. We must ensure that that connectivity continues. I wish to reiterate that the Government is committed to maintaining Ireland's core strategic connectivity. We are all agreed that connectivity is essential for us as an island nation, for social reasons, for export business and for foreign and direct investment. I refer to the regional airports, and perhaps some Members did not hear me when I spoke at the outset. There has been significant funding in terms of capital and operational funding for our regional airports and I am working on a regional airports policy that will be announced at the end of this year. It is a difficult time and I cannot set out exactly what the plans are. We will have to see where we stand on 13 October, but the House can be assured that the Government is working proactively to try to ensure that the aviation sector remains viable.
I refer to the Shannon Airport Group and plans to reintegrate it into the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA. The request to place Shannon Airport on an independent footing came from the mid-west region. Airports all around the world, for example those in Dublin and Cork, now find themselves in a difficult situation. It is not just Shannon Airport alone. They are all experiencing dramatic falls in passenger numbers. Unlike Dublin and Cork airports, Shannon did experience a drop in passenger numbers in 2019. However, that was largely due to factors outside its control such as, for example, the global grounding of the Boeing 737 Max. Despite a very challenging aviation situation in 2019, Shannon Airport secured three new European routes which were officially launched in November 2019. Unfortunately, because of Covid-19, those services could not go ahead.
Our national aviation policy recognises the strategic importance of Shannon Airport for the connectivity of the mid-west region and the Wild Atlantic Way.
Indeed, the programme for Government recognises the significant value of the aviation sector in supporting economic development. Despite Covid, Shannon Airport can stand on its own. We are in an unprecedented global crisis and it is important that the Government looks at supporting them through this crisis.
Another issue that arose was the suggestion to purchase a stake in Aer Lingus. If the Government did s, we would probably have to purchase a stake in the International Airlines Group, IAG, which includes British Airways and Iberia Airlines. Qatar Airways currently holds a 25% stake in IAG and this could be a complicating factor. As a shareholder, it is unclear what influence we would have on the day-to-day affairs of Aer Lingus. It would be difficult to get agreement with IAG to nationalise Aer Lingus as the group would have to reach an agreement on the sale of one of its subsidiaries. Nationalisation is not as clear-cut as has been outlined in the debate.
I assure Senators that targeted support will be given to State airports, thus ensuring we have connectivity regarding the Cork, Shannon and Dublin airports and we will continue investing in regional airports, which is critical. There is uncertainty and it is difficult for the Government to know the types of support and timing required. As has been outlined, testing will form a critical part of that.
Finally, I thank Senators for their contributions. I look forward to coming back and working with them all in the future.
I thank the Minister of State. The House stands adjourned until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 7 October 2020, in accordance with the order made by it on 30 September 2020.