Aviation Sector: Statements

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for taking the time today to address this important issue.

I am pleased to update the House on aviation matters. This is clearly an exceptionally challenging time for the aviation sector, and particularly for those whose livelihoods depend on the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors. The global pandemic has had a devastating impact on international travel throughout the world. The Government is conscious of the need to continue to support the domestic aviation industry to restore vital air connectivity as soon as possible, and to assist the aviation sector to rebuild and recover when the Covid crisis eases, which we hope for, and expect, in coming months.

The sector is a major contributor to the economy. Government policies have recognised and supported this contribution. Aviation supports jobs within its own sector and across the economy. It is vital for foreign direct investment, the multinational corporate sector and international tourism. Aviation underpins Ireland's status as a great place to do business and it is essential to Ireland’s competitive position internationally. Our national aviation strategy over the years has sought to enhance Ireland's connectivity by ensuring safe, secure and competitive access that is responsive to the needs of business, tourism and consumers.

Prior to Covid-19, the air transport industry in Ireland, including airlines and its supply chain, was estimated to support €8.9 billion of GDP. Spending by foreign tourists supported a further €8.7 billion of GDP. In total, approximately 6.8% of GDP was supported by air transport and foreign tourists arriving by air.

Aviation is also vital for regions. Government policy has sought to optimise conditions for regional development and connectivity for both social and economic benefits. Aviation employers make a significant contribution to the regions, providing high-quality jobs within the sector as well as through the various ancillary services provided to airports, airlines and in local economies.

Aviation is a particularly cyclical industry and, historically, it has always been susceptible to external shocks. In that context, the Covid pandemic is the most serious crisis the international aviation sector has ever faced and the industry is one of the most affected by the global pandemic. At the height of the crisis, traffic movements in Europe were more than 90% below 2019 levels and passenger numbers were estimated at just 1% of pre-Covid numbers. Recent analysis by the International Air Transport Association, IATA, shows that while domestic air travel demand has begun to recover globally, international passenger travel remains stalled in the face of ongoing travel restrictions. For Ireland, EUROCONTROL data show that traffic is still 84% below 2019 levels. A range of forecasts across the airline sector do not anticipate global capacity returning to pre-Covid 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 roll-out of vaccinations globally, the evolution of the virus and variants of concern and the ongoing need for testing related to travel, as well as the more general economic outlook. All of these factors have been carefully considered by the Government and the roadmap for reopening international travel announced on 28 May provides a framework for that recovery.

Faced with the challenge of Covid, all parts of the aviation sector, except those substantially or exclusively dedicated to air cargo, have had no option but to radically address their cost base and protect liquidity. Alongside rationalisation measures, companies are shoring up their finances through increased borrowings and raising new capital. Regrettably, Stobart Air’s plans to secure a new buyer failed and this resulted in it ceasing trading. This is a devastating development for the 480 Stobart Air workers who have been directly affected by this decision. Job cuts have also unfortunately been a feature for other European airlines as a direct consequence of the Covid-19 crisis. Ireland’s temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, have been generally successful in maintaining the link between airlines and their employees during the Covid crisis in Ireland. For Stobart Air, however, the loss of its franchise contract for the operation of regional UK routes, along with other factors, made its position untenable. The restoration of regional connectivity is of critical importance for the Government and work is under way to secure a new operator for these vital regional routes as soon as possible.

The Government is fully aware of the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector. From early in the crisis we put in place a range of supports for businesses, including the aviation sector. These included the TWSS and EWSS, the waiving of commercial rates, the deferral of tax liabilities, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, the credit guarantee scheme and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland's working capital scheme. It is estimated that by the end of this year our airlines and airports will have received over €500 million in Covid supports from the various programmes available. This includes liquidity support already provided by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, which is part of the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA. It has invested €150 million in debt funding in Aer Lingus and €40 million in the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, from the €2 billion pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund. This fund was established last year as a key support for Irish employers whose businesses had been affected by Covid-19.

The debt funding for Aer Lingus is a three-year debt facility that will strengthen the airline’s liquidity position. ISIF and Aer Lingus have agreed commercial terms on the structure, pricing and repayment of the loan that are consistent with ISIF’s statutory double bottom line mandate to invest for a commercial return in business and projects that support economic activity and employment in Ireland. ISIF’s investment is designed to complement ongoing investment into Aer Lingus by its parent company, International Airlines Group, IAG. The investment is an excellent example of the effectiveness of ISIF’s pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund, which the Government established in May last year. It matches ISIF’s investment capacity with a strong business that can use ISIF capital as a platform for rebuilding post Covid-19, supporting jobs in Ireland and contributing to the resumption of normalised economic activity.

The Government has allocated funding for an €80 million aviation-specific support package in 2021. In addition to €21 million in funding for regional airports under the regional airports programme, a further allocation to them of up to €6 million under a state aid compliant scheme is available in 2021. This is in recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on our smallest airports. Donegal, Kerry and Knock airports are eligible for funding under this scheme. Applications for funding are being assessed and I hope to be in a position to allocate funding in the coming weeks.

Approximately €32 million is being provided in support to Cork and Shannon airports this year. Additionally, my Department is assessing applications for funding to State airports under the €20 million Covid-19 supplementary support scheme. I expect to be able to provide funding to Cork and Shannon airports under it soon. This support will allow the airports flexibility to provide route incentives and airport charge rebates to stimulate recovery of lost connectivity this year.

The Government is allocating additional tourism supports to incentivise our international connectivity. The regional co-operative market access scheme promotes direct air and sea access to Ireland's regional experience brands and is administered by Tourism Ireland with matching funding from airlines, sea carriers, airports, ports and regional tourism stakeholders, including local authorities. The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media has increased the funding available for the scheme from €1.25 million in 2019 to €3 million this year. With international travel into Ireland due to recommence in earnest on 19 July, Tourism Ireland is engaging with a number of air carriers to support the promotion of routes into our regional airports, which will help to stimulate inbound tourism directly into our regions.

On 28 May, the Government announced a roadmap for the gradual reopening of international travel. This plan brings together the EU digital Covid certificate, pre-departure PCR testing and, where necessary, quarantine so that international travel can operate safely. An "emergency brake" mechanism will allow us to respond to the potential emergence of variants of concern. The current advice to avoid non-essential travel and related penalties will remain in place until 18 July. From 19 July, citizens will be advised to travel safely and in accordance with public health guidance and restrictions and to avoid non-essential travel to countries to which an emergency brake has been applied.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I will continue to engage at every level across the Government to ensure that all testing-related options that strike the right balance between protecting public health and protecting our economy are considered. We will continue to be guided by the Department of Health and NPHET on Covid-19 testing and how it might be used in settings, including international travel.

In December 2020, officials in my Department engaged with the Department of Health and the HSE and noted that our airports had seen an opportunity over the Christmas break to run an in situ assessment of antigen testing with the assistance of established testing providers. It was also highlighted that our stakeholders offered to assist in an on-site trial as regards the validation of antigen testing. Airlines have a number of outlined times their willingness to assist in any pilot programme, and my Department noted the potential for collaboration with other jurisdictions and airports on the issue.

On 11 May, I wrote to all Ministers to bring to their attention the report of the National Civil Aviation Development Forum on plans for the restarting of aviation. In that context, it was identified that one of the issues requiring urgent consideration was the role that antigen testing might play in the Government's framework for reopening. Earlier today, I wrote to my colleague, the Minister for Health, proposing that we consider piloting the use of antigen testing. The improvement in the epidemiological conditions in Ireland and in the European Union generally provides an opportunity to reconsider the potential role of antigen testing in facilitating international transport without an undue negative impact on public health. However, we will ultimately be guided by public health advice, as we have been through the pandemic.

While it may take some time for our aviation sector to regain the strong economic position that it had at the start of the pandemic, the Government has committed to ensuring that there will be no cliff edge for the Covid-19-related business supports that are currently available. On 1 June last, the Government launched its Economic Recovery Plan 2021, which is aimed at rapid job creation and kick-starting economic growth after the pandemic. The plan sets out new measures for businesses and affected sectors as the economy reopens and provides details of the various pandemic financial supports, including the CRSS, the EWSS and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. This gives certainty to employers, workers and those who need it.

With our vaccination programme progressing, a plan in place for the resumption of non-essential international travel and significant levels of business support available, the aviation sector is now positioned to begin to recover. I will remain closely engaged with all stakeholders over the coming months in the implementation of these plans. There are reasons for optimism and better days ahead. The Government will continue to work to enable the aviation sector to resume its central role in a vibrant and connected Ireland.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I do not envy her role as Minister of State with responsibility for aviation. I can only imagine how stressful it must be. Covid hit the country and aviation went wallop. All of a sudden it became the new Government's fault entirely. I hope the Minister of State gets to sleep at night sometimes and that she is not getting too much grief over it because it is absolutely not her fault that we are where we are.

It is important that we have a united message from the Government, which is why I was surprised to hear the Tánaiste saying that perhaps young people can go abroad but with no definition of what young people are, when we had just been telling everybody that unless people can rationalise it they probably should not travel. I was surprised by this because we have to have a united message and have it figured out. People want to know and most people want to do what they are told and follow the best advice. We need the advice to be very clear and united. It is interesting and must have also left the Minister of State confused with the different messages from within her own party.

All this aside, it has been a real struggle for everybody in the aviation sector. All of the staff have been worried about their jobs. We have all had so many meetings. Elected representatives from Clare had several meetings with the aviation industry because of Shannon Airport and its importance to the region. As a west coast woman, I hope the Minister of State deeply understands the importance of Shannon Airport.

Aviation has shut and we are speaking about building back better. Part of building back better should be the introduction of regional balance in the aviation sector. For too long we have seen the vast majority of flights going in and out of Dublin. We all know now that 95% of these head off somewhere else, whereas those on flights coming into Shannon and Cork stay and spend. These are the economics that make sense to rural and regional areas. I look forward to working with the Minister of State on Shannon Airport in particular because it is in my native county.

We are an island and we need flights. Some people might say we should never fly again but this is not realistic. We will need flights and we will need them for a long time to come. I saw a good article in a Clare newspaper about a Clare man who has electric planes. They are only four-seaters but it is a start. We will need flights, we will need aviation and we will need it to be done well. When we put it back in place we really have to do it with regional balance. This is one of my main points.

The introduction of the EU digital Covid certificate will be very important and positive. I look forward to people being able to relax and know it is okay to travel again. I feel the frustration of young people so I can understand why the Tánaiste spoke as he did. I would love to have said the same thing but it was not what was being recommended by NPHET. Many young people are wondering what they can and cannot do. Everybody needs more clarity. The testing centres are going really well and many people are getting vaccinated, which is good. Those in their 30s will soon be vaccinated and I welcome this.

Before I wish the Minister of State good luck with her challenge I want to raise another issue. On the front page of The Clare Echo this week was a story on the threat to more than 400 jobs at Lufthansa Technik in Shannon. I do not know how many more job losses the region can take. Not only is this threat hovering over the workers but they were not fully informed. Some of them only heard about it in the press. This is wrong. No matter what is happening, people should not find out their jobs are under threat on the front page of a newspaper. I am sure the Minister of State deals with the airline companies and businesses all of the time.

Lufthansa Technik must treat its workers better than that. Staff should not have found out about it on the news. For me, that would be horrendous. The company has done much great work on maintenance and repair; it is a maintenance, repair and overhaul operation and as such is very important. I heard about this before it was in the paper, luckily. It is always nice to know before the journalists, when we are trying to run the country. I was on to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, straight away. I know he has been talking to the Tánaiste, in his capacity as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and also directly with Lufthansa. We must try to prevent the job losses. In the worst-case scenario, what is the plan B? We must move and be ahead of the game in that regard. The more we engage with industry, the more it will keep us informed. I do not know what the best tactic is but we must do all we can to save every single job we can. Aviation is under serious threat but it will come back, it will be back again. Aeroplanes will need to be maintained. Even if they are only sitting on the ground going nowhere, they must still be constantly maintained and minded. To that end, I hope there are plans to engage with Lufthansa Technik to see what exactly the story is. I hope the company is going to inform its staff properly and treat them with the respect they deserve.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for being here. I know she is aware that 143,000 jobs in Ireland are associated with aviation. The industry is now on its knees and the main priority is its survival. That concerns not just those who are flying; Senator Garvey just mentioned Lufthansa Tecknik in Shannon, which is vital as well, but I am sure there are colleagues who will have more to say on that. As we speak, over 1,200 airline pilots who are members of IALPA are living on social welfare, and the remainder are on 25% to 30% of their normal pay. It is unbelievable. I have met pilots personally outside the gate. We have this grand image of pilots earning super money and having a wonderful lifestyle. In reality they are on their knees. These are people who committed to large mortgages and all the things that go with the job they had. I state on the floor of the House that I am 100% behind IALPA and everything it is trying to do for its members. We are now coming into the second summer of travel restrictions. Airline staff and their families are facing continued hardship well into 2022. Members will have seen hundreds of aviation workers demonstrating outside the Department of Health last week. Before participating in this event - and I know the Minister of State mentioned antigen testing and I was glad to hear it - they were all tested with antigen testing. It shows how large groups of people can be tested in a very short space of time. The international evidence seems clear that it is a tool in the box, not the solution but a tool in the box.

Last week's appearance by NPHET before the transport committee was depressing, to say the very least. The Chief Medical Officer, CMO, seems wedded to his position at the moment and it is very hard to change that. I noticed that under constant questioning from some of my colleagues, he did tend to sort of back off a little bit and saw some merit in antigen testing and that is good. The man from Harvard, whom Senator Buttimer questioned on antigen testing at the previous week's meeting of that committee, was very interesting. I am sure the Senator will have more to say on that. As the House will know, on 21 January EU states unanimously agreed to Council recommendations setting a common framework for the use of rapid antigen testing and the mutual recognition of Covid-19 tests across Europe. The bottom line on it is that most European countries have now signed up to antigen testing. The SARS-CoV-2 variants are of concern to us and I have no doubt whatsoever that the Delta variant, as it is now being called, is one we should all be quite concerned about. However, is it reason enough to ground all our aircraft? The EU advice contains a common list of rapid antigen tests. I know it is not the Minister of State's fault but it is rather sad that as far back as a year ago, in fact at the very start of this, or as soon as antigen tests became available, colleagues from all over this House were in on a weekly basis talking about antigen testing and trying to open the economy as much as we possibly could but still, for some reason or other, Government was unwilling or unable to go against the CMO.

Colleagues across this House spoke on a weekly basis about the use of antigen testing in trying to open the economy as much as we possibly could but the Government, for one reason or another, was unwilling or unable to go again the Chief Medical Officer, CMO. I understand why that might be the case. Sometimes political decisions have to be taken that countermand the medical decisions on the day. Several studies show that rapid antigen testing is very well able to detect high viral loads, correlating to the infectiousness of a person.... .Mean it will be more apporipaitae tool in widespread application in Irish society.

I understand why that might be the case but sometimes political decisions have to be taken that countermand the medical decisions on the day. Several studies show that rapid antigen testing is very well able to detect high viral loads correlating to the infectiousness of a person, meaning it would be a more appropriate tool in widespread application in Irish society.

I spoke to a person who was planning on travelling this summer. She asked her GP about travelling for three or four hours on an aircraft. The GP maintained she was more at risk going through the airport than she would be on the plane once she was tested. That is something we have to take on board. I understand the filtration systems on aircraft are very good but I also understand anybody who gets on an aircraft will have been tested. A key factor is the speed of testing.

A number of companies operate in Dublin Airport where passengers can have a test and fly with a certain degree of confidence. I am not sure about the position in Cork and Shannon airports, which my colleagues will address. I was rather shocked to hear a doctor state the other day that he would feel totally uncomfortable sitting beside somebody on an aircraft who had had a negative antigen test. I find that very hard to take. It is quite frightening for anybody who is planning on travelling.

We are the most locked up country in Europe. On the one hand, the Government states how important aviation and tourism are, yet we are blocking such travel into the country. I would hope to see transatlantic traffic coming back into the country. As the Minister of State comes from the west, as do I, counties such as Galway, Kerry and Donegal all depend on US transatlantic tourists coming into the country every year. I would hope to see that happen. It is amazing to think the United States is now almost back to pre-Covid times.

Before I conclude, I will make one final point.

On a point of order-----

I call Senator Buttimer on a point of order.

The Senator should acknowledge in the context of American aviation being fully reopened, transatlantic travel has not been reopened by the American aviation authority.

Let us be clear. If we are going to have a debate on aviation, let us do it on the basis of the facts and not on the basis of dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi.

I thank the Senator for that. I am sure he would have corrected the record when he had a moment.

A key action we must take is to put money into the airlines. We have lost Stobart Air and a few other small airlines. We have to put money into Aer Lingus and Ryanair. We can do it one of two ways. We can either grant them money or get them back in business carrying passengers. I am sorry I offended Senator Buttimer on the matter of international travel.

The Senator did not offend me but if he wants to have a debate he should have it on the basis of the facts. The American aviation authority has not opened international travel to Europe.

I thank the Senator.

European passengers cannot travel to the United States of America-----

I call Senator Dooley.

Let us have a debate on the facts.

Senator Buttimer, I have called Senator Dooley.

We will be fair to him. The Cathaoirleach represents an area where tourism is affected and he should be supporting his area as well.

I am, indeed. Senator Dooley has six minutes.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for her presentation. I welcome the fact she wrote to the Department of Health today on conducting a pilot on antigen testing. I would like if that had been done sooner. I hope the Department of Transport will be able to take on that role in conjunction with airports and airlines and notify the Department of Health it is doing it. I do not think we can leave it all to the Department of Health, but that is another issue.

The reality is that the aviation sector is decimated across the world. That is not the making of the Government or of any Department, as others have said, but how we respond to it must be the responsibility of the wider Department of Transport. We have to give some certainty to all the players, to the airports, airlines, aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul companies, support companies and the leasing companies, which are looking around and wondering where we are going. That is why I would like decisions made much sooner. We have a fair idea where the virus, the various variants and our vaccine roll-out are at. We are working towards 19 July for an opening up across Europe.

I believe that we should be moving on 1 July. I do not see why we need to wait the protracted period of time. From talking with people within the airline sector I am aware that this 19 days will have a significant impact on activity and on the levels of financial income for airlines.

On the issue of antigen testing, there is a lot of talk to suggest that if we had antigen tests it would sort the problem. It would not, but it would certainly have a significant benefit. The PCR test was really important when the virus was out of control. With the vaccines rolled out, however, and now rolling out to the 30s age group, could those under the age of 30, the teens and those in their 20s who will not be vaccinated for the rest of the summer, at least be tested with an antigen test rather than forcing them through a PCR test, which is an expensive test? Consider those parents who have worked hard throughout this year and who have coped with everything. If they want to take their two or three kids away it is probably €200 per child for tests to leave the country and to come back. We need to look at that. If there is a difference between the Tánaiste and Dr. Tony Holohan on whether or not people should travel based on whether or not they are vaccinated, could we get some clarity around whether or not an antigen test would be enough? I believe that people would accept that, and it would certainly be helpful for the industry. We must watch that.

On the wider sector, antigen testing will not bring aviation activity back to 2019 levels anytime soon, with 2023 to 2024 having been identified as the period before we are back to pre-pandemic levels of activity, however that might play out. Some would suggest that it could be 2024 to 2025. The reality is that there will be significant job losses during that period, as the Minister of State knows well. We need to provide supports to all the airports, but particularly to Shannon Airport in the west, to try to ensure that everything is not consolidated into Dublin. There is no doubt that a lot fewer people will be travelling for the next couple of years but we do not want airlines putting all flights through Dublin just in order to survive. As airlines consolidate to try to protect cash or to try to minimise their borrowings, of course they will try to consolidate activity. This will be through the biggest airport, which will be Dublin Airport. If we allow that to happen in an unbridled way it will decimate further economic recovery on the western seaboard. For sure the Government has, in my view, an absolute requirement to provide funding to the likes of Shannon Airport with route support schemes and so on. It is not good enough to say that we will look at that in the future, that there is a bundle of money and that we will announce stuff. They are grappling with airlines now. They are trying to give some certainty to the rest of the summer and the autumn period. Other airports around the world know what they can offer and they are jumping ahead. They are attracting airlines. We are losing that in the west. We need to see action around that to ensure we retain key connectivity. I will give Shannon Airport as an example. The key connectivity and the key routes for Shannon Airport for business and onward connectivity to the wider world are into London Heathrow, New York and Boston. Ryanair provides other services that are very important and they support the hospitality and tourism sector inbound and outbound for people who want to travel. We need to work with local airports. We need to establish what are the key routes that drive most levels of activity, and we need to provide the appropriate level of funding. This is not for further down the road. This needs to be done really quickly.

Senator Garvey spoke of effects on the wider sector. We have seen it with Stobart Air and with the removal of the crew base at Shannon, which is a horrendous blow to the morale, to the confidence and to the families of those who were affected. It is a huge blow to those communities. Now we see that Lufthansa Technik, which is a very important maintenance company there, is also reviewing its operations. That is really striking a blow to the confidence in the overall sector. The State needs to make it clear. We have a clear pathway now on where the virus is going. Of course one can never be overly confident, but the end is in sight and there is a pathway out of this. Vaccination is it. Alongside that we need very strong State support standing behind the industry, knowing that we will have to continue to borrow as a State to continue to support the sector, so that we can keep the foundations in place upon which to build that recovery. I thank the Minister of State for listening to us.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to the House. Like Senator Dooley, I welcome the Minister's contribution and her decision to seek a pilot on antigen testing. I agree with other speakers that this should have been done by NPHET as part of the review of the Ferguson report. Those of us who are members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications recognise the importance of aviation and understand that a whole-of-government approach is needed. This is not just a matter for the Minister of State, although, to be fair, she gets it.

I am conscious of the debate we are having. Some of us are very passionate because we have been involved in this area since the outset and know people who are intimately affected at all levels of the aviation sector. The old Aer Lingus advertisement, "Look Up, It's Aer Lingus" is funny but not funny because there is no point looking up when there is nothing happening in the skies. As Senator Garvey rightly said, we need aviation. Connectivity is central. I do not want to be political but if we are going to have a debate, then let us have honesty in that debate. Senators who were in favour of locking up the country and hotel quarantine and saying that we did not go far enough cannot come in here today and wave the flag because there is political pressure on. Some of us have been working since last April to ensure there is a plan. A good plan was published last summer by the aviation recovery task force, of which former Senator, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, was a member. We need to see that plan activated and implemented.

The response is about a whole-of-industry approach. It is about Government, aviation, hospitality, aircraft leasing and so much more. If we want to rebuild our country, which we have to do and we are all committed to doing that, then central to that is aviation, be that in Cork, Kerry or Shannon in the case of Clare, Limerick or Galway, and Dublin as well. We must reposition our aviation sector, as otherwise the stalled position will remain. Our airports and airlines are central in that regard. The Minister of State in her contribution recognised and acknowledged the amount of money the Government has put into this sector. A recovery plan is critical, however, because the essence of where we are at as an aviation sector is that as we speak, airports and airlines around the world are negotiating. We are behind the eight ball. We must incentivise our airports and the Dublin Airport Authority to negotiate in order that we can attract new routes and have route development. If we do not, we will be in trouble, the 2022 to 2023 timeline will become 2025 to 2026, Killarney, Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and so on will be affected and we will be back to square one.

The Government must respond. I do not know whether the Government understands that. I appreciate that the Minister of State understands that but I do not think her colleagues do. I really do not in some cases; I wish they would. I also do not think some in the Opposition understand. Those of us involved with airports and airlines in our areas do understand but some of our colleagues do not. This is about jobs. It is about people's livelihoods, connectivity for the country and getting hospitality tourism moving but it is also about foreign direct investment. To be fair, we should all acknowledge and thank the staff under the aegis of DAA for the sacrifices and job restructuring they have undergone. I regret the behaviour of some of the airlines in terms of the changing of work contracts and the termination of positions. I accept that in some cases they are losing a ton of money, but we are dealing with human beings here who have worked on behalf of the DAA, Aer Lingus, Ryanair, Lufthansa, Vueling and so on. Stobart Air has shown us the fragility of the aviation sector. Eight routes out of Cork Airport are gone. The supports must be guaranteed for 2022. Clarity is needed urgently in regard to the financial supports in order that deals can be done with other airlines and for route development.

If we do not do that, we will miss the window.

Finally, I wish to raise the fact that credit card companies are treating travel agents in an absolutely appalling and unacceptable manner. Representatives from the Commission on Aviation Regulation are due to appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications in two weeks. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English, is well aware of this issue and has been working on it. It is disappointing to hear from travel agents that credit card companies are taking a very hard line and are demanding substantial cash security deposits from them. The agents do not have cash available to them at present. I ask the Government to look at that.

I appreciate the Minister of State's commitment and support. Our aviation sector is critical to the next phase of our post-pandemic recovery. Ours is an island nation and we must have connectivity for a variety of reasons. I thank the Minister of State for being here.

I also welcome the Minister of State. The aviation industry was already on its knees when we learned, with shock, of the scale of job losses at Stobart Air last week. There can be no doubt that this announcement has sent shock waves through every other aviation operator in this State at a time when they are all desperately seeking oxygen. The announcement has effectively opened the departure gates for the industry in this country, although warnings had been signalled by many, including in this House, in recent months.

It was stated earlier that the Government is continuing with a number of capital projects, including the expansion of Dublin Airport and the building of an additional runway there. Meanwhile, aviation workers and their families all over the country are on tenterhooks, listening for the next news broadcast and hoping against hope that their jobs will not be the next ones to go. Last week, members of the Dáil asked what is happening to the Irish aviation industry and, most importantly, to the workers in it. I repeat those questions now. What are we doing to protect their jobs? We cannot continue to pour money into capital projects without securing the experience and jobs of those currently working in the industry. That simply does not make sense.

We all welcomed the EWSS. There is no doubt that it has helped. It should be a concern for all that jobs are being lost, however. Workers are losing their employment, as Aer Lingus crews at Cork and Shannon airports and Stobart Air employees are finding out. I am sure all Members are receiving emails and letters from aviation families who feel that the Government is not trying hard enough to protect their livelihoods. There is no confidence among aviation workers that their worries and their families' concerns are being taken seriously. We are now just a couple of weeks away from 19 July and we all hope aviation will take off safely again, securing existing jobs and preventing any further losses.

Notwithstanding what the Minister of State has said - and I welcome the fact that she has written to the Minister for Health - it is very important that we talk about antigen testing. As others have already stated, antigen testing is not the silver bullet for the industry but it must be part of the solution to opening up again and part of the process the Government adopts to get the industry off its knees. Many eminent professionals and medical experts are promoting antigen testing as part of a package of solutions that includes PCR tests and the continuing roll-out of the vaccination programme to the greatest extent possible. The Labour Party's transport spokesperson, Deputy Duncan Smith, called last week in the Dáil for a co-ordinated approach to testing in order to get our aviation industry back up and operational. PCR testing could be used for passengers on the way out but we should be considering antigen testing for people on the way in to this State. Simply put, antigen testing should be on top of the existing structures, making those structures a bit more flexible where possible but at no time weakening what we already have in place.

I am sure we were all delighted to hear the excellent news at the NPHET briefing last week when the CMO, Dr. Holohan, informed us that we are now experiencing near-immolation of Covid-19 in the vaccinated population. As important and vital to our futures as that is, at the same briefing Dr. Holohan, when asked about antigen testing once again, stated that NPHET was confident that antigen testing should be used in many situations. Indeed, we were informed that there are pilot antigen tests planned for and progressing at third level, for example. Currently, however, we do not have any indication of when and if antigen testing will be used for foreign travel and that must change. In that context, I welcome the fact that the Minister of State is writing to the Minister for Health on the matter.

Of course, several European countries, including Denmark, Germany, France and Italy, are already accepting antigen testing to allow entry. There appears to be widespread use of antigen testing in many different industries in countries such as Canada, where the evidence is that such testing has identified the virus in many cases, thereby preventing the mass spread of this terrible virus in that country.

We must realise the importance of the aviation industry to Ireland. Ireland is an island on the edge of Europe. Some 143,000 lives and livelihoods are directly connected to Irish aviation and are dependent on it. There can be no doubt the industry is struggling, as is evident from the loss of so many jobs in recent weeks. In other countries such as Germany, direct state intervention coupled with the use of multiple testing options are seeing the beginning of a revival. It is time we used all the tools available to us to help this industry and, most importantly, those whose lives depend upon it. The EU digital green certificate will make a much-needed difference. We must see its further detail and it being rolled out, which seemed to begin in this House this morning. That roll-out must be accompanied by an accelerated pilot scheme on antigen testing. We must use every tool available to save the industry. It simply will not survive a second summer of grounded flights and empty airports. We must protect the greatest number of the 143,000 jobs and the families and people behind them.

It is nice to see the Minister of State. She is always welcome here. I hope she will not take it badly when I say we were told last week that her colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, would come to the House. I am conscious I have given the Minister of State a hard time on many occasions on this subject, so I would not mind giving the Minister a hard time as well. However, it cannot happen. I appreciate what the Minister of State said today and I certainly welcome the pilot programme for antigen testing. Incidentally, I do not believe antigen testing will be a big part of the solution. I was on a flight four weeks ago and everybody on the aeroplane was tested on arrival. It turned out afterwards that the flight resulted in a host of people with the Delta variant of Covid-19 from that journey, so there are no simple solutions for this. However, antigen testing has a role to play.

It will not surprise the Minister of State that I want to talk about Shannon Airport. There is massive frustration. Other Members have referred to the loss of the cabin crew base. I recall more than 12 months ago when a host of representatives from the mid-west met the Aer Lingus staff. They warned us then what was coming down the line if action was not taken. A Government had not been formed at that point, but assurances were given by public representatives, I believe in good faith, that once a Government was formed, there would be some type of strategic plan to save those jobs. Of course, it would have been much easier to do that if the last stake in Aer Lingus had not been privatised, but we could spend hours discussing the mistakes made previously in aviation policy. My point is that 12 months later nothing was done about securing those Aer Lingus jobs and we have now lost the cabin crew base and 81 jobs at Shannon Airport.

The aviation task force has been mentioned. I support the calls for the recommendations of the task force to be implemented. Recommendation No. 2 relating to the app and for it to include all relevant, up-to-date travel information for Ireland and for Irish citizens travelling abroad has not been implemented. The recommendation regarding comprehensive test, track and trace, which could have included antigen testing, is certainly not fully implemented at this point. A national code of practice for safe air travel in alignment with the European Aviation Safety Agency has not been implemented, nor has a common fixed sum per passenger for Cork, Shannon, Ireland West, Kerry and Donegal airports been implemented. I could go on. What frustrates us in the mid-west in particular is that when the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was asked last week what his response was to the ongoing crisis in Shannon Airport, he said he was going to establish another task force. He has not implemented the recommendations from this task force.

What is even more puzzling is that, last August, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, declared he was carrying out a review of the Shannon Group. We thought that was great, that finally somebody was going to take a look at this and put a strategic plan in place. That was on 9 August last, but nobody in this Chamber, with the possible exception of the Minister of State, knows what has happened to that review. Nothing has been said to us. Nearly a year later, the recommendations of the aviation task force have not been implemented and none of us knows what has become of the internal departmental review. Furthermore, there was an excellent, all-party Oireachtas committee report. I see colleagues in the Chamber who played a key role in producing that report. There were 20 recommendations and I will quote the last two, because they have a direct bearing on what we are discussing here. Recommendation No. 19 states: "That a new national aviation policy must be developed and given priority by Government, setting out a co-ordinated national approach to ensure balanced recovery and growth across the aviation sector".

As Senator Buttimer said, we must reposition the aviation sector. That key recommendation but has not been implemented.

Recommendation No. 20 is: "Recognising the very significant shock to the aviation sector, the Committee recommends the re-establishment of a State Airports Authority, encompassing Dublin, Shannon and Cork airports, to lead the recovery in a balanced way". That is what we could have been doing over the last 12 months and I am at a complete loss as to why those actions have not been undertaken. It is highly significant because we had a disagreement last October when I tabled a motion on setting up a new national State airport authority to encompass Shannon Airport and end the silly position of having it as a separate airport competing against Dublin Airport, which is a competition it could never win. Since then, all parties have agreed, through the transport committee on these recommendations. Now all parties, including representatives from the Minister of State's party, have called for the re-integration of Shannon Airport into the new national State airport authority, yet nothing has been done. The people of Clare, Limerick and the mid-west are at a complete loss when they see the aviation sector in crisis that nothing strategic has been done and we are losing time. We will see a recovery but in the meantime nothing has been done to address the fact that 95% of aeroplanes leave from the east coast. We see what has happened in other countries. In the Netherlands, a cap applies to the country's key airport to ensure regional balance takes place. In Ireland, despite a review, an excellent all-party Oireachtas committee report and an aviation task force, none of the key issues has been tackled.

What is worse is there is now a real worry about 500 jobs in Lufthansa Technik. Last week, when the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was asked whether he had been in contact with the company, his response was that he had been talking to people in the local area. What does that even mean?

Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether he or his Department has been in direct contact with Lufthansa Technik where 500 jobs are at risk. There is talk of a sale, perhaps in a month, according to a report published in The Irish Times. These are key, valuable jobs that we cannot afford to lose. I get the impression, and I am not talking about the Minister of State, that the Department is not up to speed in terms of taking urgent action to save jobs, protect Shannon Airport and the jobs it supports and protect the mid-west economy.

This Government will not be forgiven for failing to act on Shannon Airport. I call on the Minister to take action, implement the recommendations and provide a clear, positive answer today.

I thank the Minister of State. This is the first time that I, as a returning Senator, have been in the Chamber with her. I congratulate her on her appointment. Some of the first points that I made on my return were about Shannon Airport, which might surprise people. The mid-west region is well represented in the Seanad by Senators Dooley, Marie Byrne, Conway and Gavan. The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications also has a number of members from the mid-west, including Deputies Lowry, Kieran O'Donnell, Carey and Cathal Crowe, and Senator Timmy Dooley.

In Ireland's aviation history, Shannon Airport was the last point in Europe which everybody transited in the 1950s and 1960s before aircraft travel had more capacity. The airport invented the concept of duty-free and a drink called Irish coffee. For many years, Aeroflot flew all of its aeroplanes through the airport. The Soviet Union built a fuel farm at Shannon and Aeroflot planes were the airport's biggest customer for a long time, from the 1980s to the 2000s. Many Deputies have complained over the years about the use of Shannon Airport by troops but this facility provided it with substantial revenue for many years when, unfortunately, it benefited from a difficult conflict.

Aer Rianta as a concept, which combined the airports of Ireland at the time, did not just run duty-free shops in Ireland but ran them in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was then known, and Dubai. Ireland is the birthplace of aircraft fleeting, initially with Guinness Peat Aviation, GPA, and now with many different companies. Half of the world's aviation industry is leased through Ireland and 90% of our visitors arrive by air. We are the largest island in the EU country, although I acknowledge that Malta and Cyprus are also islands. People in the EU sometimes forget that while they can jump on a train from Germany to the Czech Republic, France, Spain or Portugal, and from Brussels and Paris to London, we are far more dependent on aviation than any other EU member state.

As a country, our personnel diaspora have a substantial involvement with aviation and are working all over the world. Willie Walsh is the director general of the International Air Transport Association, representing 82% of the world’s airlines. Alan Joyce, chief executive officer of Qantas, is Irish. Sean Doyle, chief executive officer of British Airways, is Irish. Eamonn Brennan, director general of EUROCONTROL, which controls all of the world’s airlines, is Irish. Michael O’Leary of Europe’s largest airline is Irish. We are dependent on aviation and sometimes the wider population does not appreciate just how much we punch above our weight in aviation. The Minister’s speech was excellent in terms of how much of GDP, foreign tourism and foreign direct investment is dependent on it.

I would love to see all of our regional airports thrive and do well, but we also need some perspective. When Dublin Airport was at its peak, passenger numbers amounted to 33 million per year, Cork Airport was at a level of about 2.2 million passengers and Shannon Airport was at 1.6 million passengers. Regardless, we must do everything we can for the regions. However, the Stobart Air route to Kerry amounted to 58,000 passengers in a normal pre-pandemic year. Dublin Airport has in excess of 100,000 passengers a day. We must ensure that Dublin Airport thrives for the aviation sector, which is so important, and for all our tourists. Some 90% of tourists coming into this country do so by air. Regardless of where they land, they come in by air. We must ensure they can get here. We must also ensure our population can travel safely and freely using major routes to different countries. I have no issue with Aer Lingus expanding and having a base in Manchester, but not at the expense of airports in Dublin, Shannon, Belfast or Cork, or any other airport on this island.

We have done a significant amount as a Government and as a country to help aviation in the past. Ireland has suffered. I refer to the impact on aviation of the 1980s recession, the 2000s twin towers event, and the volcanic ash cloud. Aviation is an amazingly resilient industry. However, a number of weeks ago Willie Walsh said to us at our Oireachtas committee, of which I am a member since last month, that the airline industry is going to be smaller when it is built back up, and I am questioning this myself. We must ensure that we are not at the bottom of the queue, at the bottom of the list, when airlines look at what routes to reopen. We must ensure that all of our airports are available and that “Ireland Inc.” is open for business.

I refer to antigen testing. I welcome the Minister’s comments stating that he has written to the Minister for Health. I also welcome the comments from the CMO who said that people who are fully vaccinated will not require a PCR or antigen test. Unfortunately, this does not take into account people’s children who have not been vaccinated. It would be incredibly expensive for families if they were getting a PCR test on the way in and on the back, per person. I think the Minister of State understands that point. We must have on the record of the House how important aviation is, how far we punch above our weight and how much we need to do. I appreciate the work Aer Lingus pilots did in bringing personal protective equipment into the country 15 months ago, which I do not think anyone has mentioned at this stage because eaten bread is soon forgotten. No European capital city airport flies in excess of six times its population through its airport every year. Dublin Airport was punching far above most other capital city airports throughout the EU. We must get Ireland Inc. back punching above its weight in the aviation industry. We must get people flying into the country for the hospitality and tourism sectors. We must also allow our population fly again. Let us make sure, when we do it, that we attract as many visitors as we can into the country, for the sake of jobs in the aviation industry and in the wider tourism, hospitality and foreign direct investment industries.

Senators Byrne and Conway are sharing time. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to debate this important topic about aviation. Where I come from, in Limerick and in the mid-west region, aviation plays an important role. Airlines are very complex and need to be realistic with flexible plans in terms of reopening and getting back up and running. While passenger airlines are to the fore and will therefore be discussed a lot, I know that the leasing companies have been referred to. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, was in Limerick this morning. We were in the Gardens International building where Nordic Aviation has its headquarters.

That is right in the heart of Limerick city but it is only 15 km away from Shannon Airport. To survive and thrive in Covid-19, airlines will have to fundamentally rethink their fleets, the way they do things, refinancing and how they operate. I welcome, however, the Minister of State's announcement today with regard to antigen testing and also the increased funding coming down the line for both Cork and Shannon airports.

We have more than 50 years' experience in the aviation industry in terms of leasing and finance. I know there is more than $20 million of GDP in Ireland out of that industry alone and more than 100,000 people are affected. The Recover Irish Aviation campaign had a primary objective to advocate for the safe and responsible return of international aviation in line with international best practice. When we look at Aer Lingus, Stobart Air and Lufthansa, which have affected us in the mid-west region, our first thoughts are with the staff and the families. I believe, however, that the Aer Lingus announcement, the restructuring in Shannon Airport and the airport pay cut are only the start of things to come. I believe Aer Lingus is looking at the other airports.

I have much more that I would like to say. At our recent Ard Fheis, however, a motion was passed that recognised the importance of Shannon international airport to the national economy and to international connectivity, and the importance of the aviation sector in general to Ireland's rebound and post-Covid recovery. It called on the Government to support the sector and its workers. I know from the Minister of State's announcement today that this is basically what she is doing. The Heathrow Airport slots and the connectivity are really important to the region, however. Forty of the top companies use Shannon Airport for connectivity. I am sharing my time with Senator Cummins so I will say one or two final things. Basically, we need to recognise the importance of Shannon Airport, and Cork Airport in the west, to connectivity and businesses.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to the House. In the first instance, I welcome some of the kind comments that have been made regarding Shannon Airport. I do not agree with one comment, however. I certainly do not believe that as an airport, we should or can rely on revenue from the US military flying and refuelling its planes on their way to war zones around the world as any way supporting Shannon Airport. As a matter of fact, I believe that practice should be discontinued as a matter of urgency-----

-----even though it has been a Government policy of all parties for the last 20 or 30 years. The Tánaiste also made some comments over the weekend giving voice to the detail of the green certificate, which we have signed up to as a country along with our European colleagues. He also said that if he was in Tony Holohan's position as the Chief Medical Officer, he would be giving the same advice. We have, however, signed up to the digital green certificate along with our European neighbours as part of our commitment to getting the aviation industry up and running.

In terms of Shannon Airport, where I am from and near enough to where the Minister of State is from, we need figures and timelines. Shannon Airport needs to know how much it is getting and when it is getting it, simply because the aviation industry is something that does not happen overnight. It takes time to plan. It takes time to negotiate with airlines, which are also on their knees, and to secure routes. Shannon Airport needs to know, therefore, how much it is getting, when it is getting it and what the multiannual commitments will be.

I agree with other colleagues. We have seen in the Netherlands that there has been a cap on the main airport. That is something that must be look at post Covid. When there is a cap, it means that if airlines want to fly into Ireland then they have to look at other areas. That is not going back to the Shannon stopover or anything like that; it is giving a commitment to our policy of regional development.

We have motorways in this country now that we did not have before. People can commute from one part of the country to the other in a matter of three or four hours maximum. Most parts of the country can be accessed much quicker. Really and truly, when people land into our country, they have choice that perhaps they did not have before. What Shannon Airport does not need are package holiday trips to Lanzarote and that type of thing. The type of business we need going forward and into the future is commercial business and tourism into Shannon, in particular, from North America, Asia and other parts of Europe as opposed to ferrying people from Shannon to Lanzarote.

Aircraft leasing is critical to Shannon. The best brains in the world in aircraft leasing emanated from Shannon. Planes are being grounded around the world, which is impacting on jobs and Irish companies. I have asked previously about the merger between AerCap and GE Capital Aviation Services, GECAS, and how that will impact on the people in Shannon. I still have not received a response. I know the Minister of State has a difficult job, however. I acknowledge the good work she is doing.

There has been extensive debate this afternoon-----

I am sorry, Senator Cassells. Senator Keogan is next to speak.

I will give way.

Senator Keogan's name was down on the list earlier. I assumed she had spoken. Senator Craughwell is next on the list but he is not here.

Senator Craughwell already spoke.

Is Senator Keogan taking Senator Craughwell's slot?

I am taking Senator Craughwell's place.

Senator Craughwell has not spoken.

Senators Craughwell and Keogan have swapped.

The Senators have switched places. Senator Keogan has six minutes, followed by Senator Cassells.

The Minister of State is very welcome. I do not believe I have spoken to her before. The coronavirus pandemic has massively impacted many industries in this country and across the globe. In this country, however, aviation has been particularly affected. What has the Government done about it?

In 2018, there were 140,000 jobs in aviation and the air transport sector in Ireland. In addition to that employment, 105,000 jobs were supported and created by those 140,000 jobs. Approximately 4,000 workers have already left the industry since the outbreak of the pandemic. Only last week, the president of the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, warned that 5,000 more will be lost before winter.

I have stated that these 4,000 jobs were butchered by this Government's inaction and a further 5,000 will soon be butchered too. Some 480 jobs went when Stobart Air closed down; 3,000 more jobs might go in Ryanair very soon if pay cuts cannot be agreed. Despite the Government's shock and dismay at Ryanair cutbacks, and all the finger-wagging that was done in this House, more jobs have gone and more will continue to go in all our airlines. So, yes; jobs have been butchered. The worst part is that is not the end. This is only the beginning of the damage to the aviation industry. This will get worse until the Government decides to help make it better. How then can we make things better?

To begin with, where is the EU digital certificate that will allow Irish people to travel? Last week, 12 countries were using the pass already. Ireland will not be using it until 19 July, which is three weeks away. The aviation industry in this country does not have three weeks. According to the EU website today, Ireland is technically ready to connect to the EU digital Covid certificate, DCC, gateway, Why, therefore, are we not connected? What is the delay?

There have been calls for a new task force and an approved restart plan. I was shocked to learn from an article in The Irish Times last month that this country had a restart plan for our dog parlour industry before we had a restart plan for our aviation industry. Does air travel and this sector of our economy not mean anything to us? Do we not care about the livelihoods of 245,000 Irish people?

Throughout this pandemic, we have been told to follow the data and science. This nation is unique to the hundreds of other nations across the world that allow antigen testing. On this point of antigen testing, Ireland is following no data and no science. Rather, Ireland is following the cautions of the National Public Health Emergency Team, Dr. Tony Holohan and Dr. Mary Keogan, who warned that antigen testing could be falsified. This is bad management on the part of the Government and the Minister. Does our public health body know something that nations across the globe do not know? Antigen testing directly before a flight is not foolproof; no scientific test is. However, it is a further layer of protection and a further step to opening up. It would be a further commitment to our airlines and people working in those airlines.

In November, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said that the coronavirus resulted in a sharp reduction in air travel not just in Ireland but across the globe and in Europe. That is untrue. We have had a 90% reduction in flights from 2019 to the present in this country, according to the EUROCONTROL reports. Meanwhile, Germany, for example, has only experienced a decrease of 59%. We are falling behind and we cannot afford to.

Ireland owns and operates 60% of the world's leased aircraft. We are a small island nation and 90% of our inward travel is by plane. We are a growing economy and rely on foreign direct investment that executives travelling to Ireland bring. Yet, here we are with one of the worst affected and least supported aviation industries in the world.

The German Government has pumped €10 billion into Lufthansa. What has our aviation industry received? A sum of €80 million and an old task force looking after it. We cannot just throw money at it; that is not what I suggest. We must start to support the aviation industry, however. We must start to listen to its pleas and consider a plan. The aviation industry needs the Government to show it a guiding light but right now, I dare say this Government does not have a guiding light and this is not acceptable. I urge the Government to prioritise the aviation industry before it is too late.

I thank the Minister of State for her contribution and work in this respect. We have had a very good and extensive debate throughout this afternoon about the main players in the sector and what is required in terms of strategies and supports.

A key component of the whole sector that has not had much mention here this afternoon is the Irish travel agents, which also come under the auspices of the office of the Minister of the State as they are licensed under the Commission for Aviation Regulation.

International travel starts not at Dublin Airport or Shannon Airport but on the main street of one's home town when one goes into one's local travel agent and books a trip. Travel agents are an essential component in the whole aviation sector because without them, one is not going anywhere. Yet, in the food chain of aviation, they are being treated very much as though they are at the bottom of the pyramid, which is simply not good enough.

This morning, the headline on the front page of the Irish Independent read "Now granny comes too". It seems families heading on sun holidays are packing Granny along with the rest of their luggage as part of a new wider family experience. When is Granny going to be able to pack her factor 50 sun cream and swimwear? Judging by the comments in the newspaper, it will not be this year when she will be on the lilo in the paddling pool.

The former president and current board member of the Irish Travel Agents Association, Mr. Martin Skelly, was quoted in the front-page story. He stated that "95pc of enquiries we are getting are for holidays next year". Mr. Skelly also owns Navan Travel, which is my local travel agency. I spoke to him before this debate and he noted that although travel agents reopened on 17 May and were treated like the rest of the non-essential retail cohort and lost their CRSS, nobody in the country is allowed to travel for leisure purposes until July. The sector employs 3,000 people, yet it has lost its support although the travel agencies are not taking in money. They are dealing with a huge amount of inquiries, must staff their offices and deal with the inquiries yet nothing is coming in and people cannot travel. It is a bit like telling publicans that they can open their doors but they cannot sell porter. This lacuna that has developed is causing severe financial stress on travel agents who are a key component in the facilitation of the aviation sector. What is clear from the comments of the industry experts in the story this morning and before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications is that the tap is not going to be turned on seamlessly when travel does recommence.

As has been stated, 95% of the inquiries that travel agents receive at the moment are for travel next year. The representatives of these many agents across Ireland have submitted significant documentation to the Minister of State and the Minister in respect of the provision of additional support to overcome the time lag between bookings and profitability, and the industry returning. Travel agents have two years of losses to recoup. They worked through last year when people contacted them to cancel bookings. They had their offices manned. Almost the easiest thing would have been for them to let businesses fold and allow people to avail of the State guarantee. However, the travel agents stood by their responsibilities and acted like the responsible business people that they are. By the end of this year, they will have had two years of significant losses to be carried over.

The industry representatives have submitted significant documentation to both the Minister of State and the Minister seeking an additional cash flow to allow travel agents to survive. What they need now is ministerial engagement in order that their doors can stay open and they can get people back on planes again, and enjoying international travel. Unless they get support the key component in this whole process is not going to be there. The travel agents have not been spoken about here this afternoon and I want to put my voice to their case here as part of this debate.

I wish to share my time with Senator Ahearn.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome this opportunity to say a few words on this important topic. There is no need for me to explain to her the impact that the pandemic has had on the aviation business. There is also no need for me to tell her how important Ireland West Airport Knock is to our region of the west. The airport is a huge addition to the west of Ireland and to the whole region of the west and the north west in terms of connectivity from the point of view of tourism and business. The fact that nearly 800,000 passengers a year travel in and out of Ireland West Airport Knock is a huge bonus for the entire region.

Last year, the Government covered the cost and gave an extra €6 million to the regional airports, which was very welcome. This year, I hope that the additional costs of the regional airports, including Ireland West Airport Knock, will be covered by the Government. The airports have substantial costs in trying to keep going, to keep staff on board and to keep facilities open in order that they are ready to go when things open up fully. Ireland West Airport Knock has opened up and there is a certain number of flights that travel between London and the airport every week, which is very welcome at this time.

A group of Fine Gael Senators met representatives of Aer Lingus not too long ago who told us that it will take Aer Lingus ten years to get back to where it was. As I am sure it is the same for many other airlines, the quicker that the Government can get things opened up fully then the quicker normality will resume. It is unbelievable to think it will take the likes of Aer Lingus, which is attached to one of the biggest airlines in the world, ten years to get back to where it was before the arrival of the pandemic. Its representatives told us it had taken the airline ten years to reach that point and it would be terrible if it took it another ten years to return to that position.

The whole aviation industry is worth a considerable amount of money to Ireland. When one considers all the aircraft leasing, Aer Lingus, Ryanair, all the huge airlines and the duty-free enterprise, the industry is worth a great deal of money to the State and I hope that things would open up as quickly as possible.

As mentioned by previous Senators, the travel agents deserve support as well. My own travel agent in Castlebar is Robert Kilkelly Travel and its owner outlined to me the difficulties that travel agents have and I hope they will be helped as things go forward.

It is entertaining in some ways, but also staggering, the amount of time that Senator Keogan flip flops on issues. She moves from being for something to being against it and uses the kind of language that is wholly inappropriate. She spoke about "butchering jobs" as if the Government or the Minister of State set out to butcher jobs in the aviation industry. She is now saying that aviation should be up and running again but six weeks ago, on 1 May, the same Senator, in this Chamber, said the following:

I find it staggering that the Government has radically curtailed the rights and freedoms of citizens with Garda-enforced 5 km and, at times, 2 km travel limits, yet international travel has continued without any meaningful restriction. How is this fair? How does this make sense? Surely, the Government should be introducing a mandatory quarantine on all non-essential travel into the country. Surely, this makes more sense than a somewhat arbitrary list of countries, mostly located in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, to be covered by mandatory quarantine.

She also said that 90% of the cases that have been detected in this country are of the British variant but that Britain was "conspicuous in its absence" from the list of countries covered by mandatory quarantine. Six weeks ago she wanted Britain to be restricted through mandatory quarantine-----

That was back in December or January.

(Interruptions).

It was said six weeks ago. Now Senator Keogan is blaming the Government for not opening up the aviation industry quickly enough.

The Government has not opened it up-----

It is just staggering.

The aviation industry, more than any other sector, has been decimated by Covid. While we welcome the opening on 19 July and many people are hugely excited about travelling again and supporting the industry, it is going to take a long time for it to recover. It is not going to recover on 19 July and the Government must support the industry through the coming period. We have seen what has happened with regard to flights to and from Kerry and Donegal, as well as with the Aer Lingus base in Shannon Airport. Government supports are badly needed but the key focus must be support for the Heathrow slots. We have 23 Heathrow slots from Ireland which are hugely valuable. Oman Air bought one Heathrow slot in 2016 for $75 million. We have 23 of them and they are hugely valuable. The Minister for Transport has the right to veto their disposal and to secure them for a number of years and I would urge him to do so for a further 20 years.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I also welcome today's announcement regarding the Safe Routes to School programme, which is fantastic, with over €15 million being provided for active travel.

On the aviation sector, in her opening statement the Minister of State referenced the importance of regional connectivity, particularly for the west. Ireland West Airport Knock is crucial, along with Shannon Airport. It is essential that we ensure that the reopening will be both safe and sustainable. It cannot be the case that we reopen and then shut down again. It must be a certainty in order to protect existing jobs in the aviation sector. Foreign direct investment is also crucial. We are trying to fight for investment, through Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, into our local areas and we need to ensure that we still have regional airlines operating.

Supports have been put in place for regional airlines and the Minister of State gave us some detail on that in her opening statement. I have spoken to a number of people working in the sector who are very concerned at the job losses. The sector has been incredibly badly impacted by the pandemic. It is very clear from those I have spoken to that it would be absolutely detrimental to open up and then to have any further closures. We are on a very positive path with our vaccination programme and are rolling it out as quickly as possible. We need to make sure we do not make ourselves vulnerable vis-à-vis what is happening in other countries. Some have had to delay reopening because of high numbers of cases of different and really infectious variants.

I welcome the Minister of State. I take on board what she said in her opening statement and what has been said by many contributors this evening. This is a tremendously important issue and the Government is doing everything it can, notwithstanding some of the accusations that have been made. It is really important that the digital green certificate is fast-tracked. There are certain processes that we may have to put in place but the industry here is suffering enormously. As other colleagues have said, we have met pilots, travel agents and others involved in the aviation industry who are suffering enormously. It is very frustrating for them and I understand their frustration, particularly those who work on the planes. They visit other jurisdictions and do not see the same restrictions that they face when they come to Dublin. It is very difficult to explain to them why that is the case.

The Government has been very successful in reducing the number of cases here and rolling out the vaccination programme but because we have been successful in that regard, there is a reasonable expectation that this will give rise to a greater reopening of aviation and further opportunities for people to travel, not just for business and essential reasons but also for leisure. The Tánaiste spoke at the weekend about the fact that there will be an opportunity for people to travel for leisure, even where they have not been fully vaccinated. That is important because other countries in the European Union do not have the same restrictions as we have in terms of allowing travel, particularly on the Continent where there are no borders between countries. While taking on board what the Minister of State has said, we need to be moving towards a situation where international travel and travel by air are re-normalised. Until we do that, we will remain isolated and the aviation sector will continue to suffer.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for her remarks on the piloting of antigen testing. I wish to confirm my concern for those affected by the difficulties in aviation and with connectivity in general. Connectivity is so important for brand Ireland as well as for consumers and businesses.

There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the digital green certificate and people are asking very practical questions. Senator Doherty has called for a public information campaign which is a really good idea. I wish to pose a number of questions. If a country accepts an antigen test, is it okay for us to travel with just an antigen test? If so, do we just require a PCR test on our return? If we need PCR tests when leaving, can we use the HSE system to get those tests? The bigger question I have concerns people in the North. We have special arrangements in place for the Erasmus+ programme and the European health insurance card so why not for this? The Tánaiste spoke about how unfair it would be to stop young people travelling because they were not fully vaccinated but what about those who are resident in the North? Many would not think of themselves as living in a third country vis-à-vis the South. I understand that people are concerned about the Delta variant but the same safety measures would be put in place and people would travel under the same conditions. The reopening in the North has been slowed down because of the Delta variant and its vaccination roll-out is further ahead. Knowing that the date is 19 July and given the planning that would be involved in order to include the North, is there an appetite to try to come up with a solution?

I thank the Minister of State for being here. While I missed some of the debate due to meeting commitments, I echo the calls for the increased use of antigen tests. I understand the caution and the nerves. When I first saw them advertised in a supermarket I was concerned that their cavalier use could facilitate more socialising and more people being out and about.

If we get instructions and public information about how to use them, however, there is no reason that the latter cannot be overcome. The benefits of their use are particularly relevant to aviation. The constituency in which I live, Dublin South-Central, contains many tourist spots. Many people coming into the country wander around Dublin city so it is not just about aviation and the people employed in the sector, although we need to move on this. They have been on the sidelines for a very long time. One of the most vocal spokespersons on behalf of this sector is a former captain, Sarah Louise Gibbons, who is a relative of mine. She has spoken very articulately about how her world has changed. In the space of 15 months, she went from literally flying high and instructing others to being made redundant. We certainly need to do something dramatic for the aviation sector to ensure that it is opened up along with all businesses that flow from it, such as small restaurants, etc. We have the Royal Hospital in Dublin South-Central and so many places people visit. That tourism keeps employment in the area.

We need to address how we will include people vaccinated in Northern Ireland under the digital green certificate programme. Some residents of Dublin who grew up in the North and went home to get their vaccination ahead of us have written to me. How will we facilitate their being allowed to travel? It would be useful for us to debate how we are going to do that.

I welcome the Minister of State's remarks, which have been very positive and hopeful. At all stages, she has acknowledged that the Government has attempted to respond as quickly as it can. We need, however, to send out a signal to the effect that aviation, in and of itself, is not dangerous. We are grappling with the virus and with potential unknowns in the context of the Delta variant. We are also looking at the numbers with Covid in our hospitals and ICUs and seeing that the picture in this regard continues to be very positive. As a result, perhaps it is time for us to be more courageous in our decision-making and to take very positive steps to encourage the return of flights and confidence in travel in order to help entire sectors and companies such as Aer Lingus that will take up to ten years to recover.

I thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate. I share their concerns about the devastating impact of this global pandemic on the aviation sector and share their deep regret regarding the failure of Stobart Air and the closure of the Aer Lingus base at Shannon Airport. I am acutely aware of all the issues raised and have met with all key stakeholders on several occasions since the start of the pandemic. I am very aware of the problems facing the sector. I reiterate that the Government is committed to reopening international travel and will continue to provide supports as necessary. The number one ask in all of my engagements with airlines, airports and other stakeholders in the sector has been the reopening of international travel and this is what the Government has clearly outlined. On 28 May, we announced the roadmap relating to the aviation sector, which gives the sector certainty. That was the ask if we are looking at rebuilding the sector and ensuring that we protect as many jobs as possible. In the context of supports for the sector, we have given nearly €500 million.

I also acknowledge the devastating impact of the pandemic on the staff of our airlines in the context of job losses. Almost all aviation workers and companies continue to be impacted by the most sustained and deepest period of suppression this sector has ever faced. Job losses in their thousands have, unfortunately, been a feature of other European airlines and further job losses are likely as the industry restructures in response to Covid-19. These job losses have arisen despite the provision of substantial state supports across Europe and are indicative of the scale of the crisis in the aviation sector globally. The Government is fully aware of the extent and seriousness of the pandemic in the context of aviation.

A number of Senators alluded to certain supports. Taking all of the supports for businesses, including the aviation sector, into account, it is estimated that more than €500 million will have been availed of by the sector by the end of this year. A recent report from the Central Bank on Covid-19 and the public finances outlined that the fiscal support package introduced here was large, with the increase in primary Government spending the second highest in the euro area in the first three quarters of last year. The report found that the fiscal measures introduced have mitigated the impact of the pandemic on households, firms and the broader economy. The purpose of these horizontal financial supports was to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the broader economy. The Government is confident that this strategy will facilitate a speedy recovery of all sectors, including aviation, as soon as restrictions are lifted.

The Government's economic recovery plan was published on 1 June. Employers in the aviation sector can rest assured that there will be no cliff edge in the horizontal State supports that have been available since the beginning of the pandemic. This was clearly stated during the announcement relating to the recovery plan. The Government will keep under review the need for any additional supports to the sector, if required. The economic recovery plan explicitly references this and recognises that additional supports may be required to support the aviation sector's recovery as it opens up. Additional funding might also be necessary for our regional State airports, namely, Cork and Shannon. They will also be considered in the context of the Estimates process this year regarding budget 2022.

Many Senators raised the importance of regional connectivity. I assure them that the Government is wholly committed to supporting the regions and regional connectivity. This is why we moved quickly to seek to reinstate the lost services to Donegal and Kerry and committed to renewing the public service obligation services on these routes under a new contract for up to a further four years. The funding made available to these airports in 2021 is a clear indication of the importance Government attaches to their being well positioned to weather the current crisis and for recovery and growth. It is worth noting that the capital funding of €900,000 to Donegal Airport, €2.2 million to Knock airport and €1.7 million Kerry Airport, which I announced on 19 April under the regional airports programme, represented funding of 100% of all eligible projects submitted by the airports this year. In addition, I have asked airports to give further consideration to projects with a sustainability focus, which would help expedite the airport's efforts to reduce emissions in line with the goal of moving towards carbon neutrality. These additional projects are being evaluated by my Department.

Regarding the mid-west region, I am fully aware of the devastating impact of Covid on Shannon Airport. Strategic routes from the airport to London Heathrow, European hub airports and the US are vital for the economic well-being of the region. Prior to the pandemic, Shannon Group was delivering on its commercial mandate, improving profitability and recording strong growth in its commercial property company. While the impact of Covid has left Shannon Group in a very vulnerable position, the general Covid-related supports put in place by Government and the specific supports targeted at Shannon Airport, which total some €30 million in the past year, should serve to secure the position of the group and aid its recovery. In a positive development, I can advise Senators that Ryanair resumed scheduled air services in Shannon on 1 June. Flights operating include those to the UK, Poland, Lithuania and Spain. Shannon Airport has also advised me that Ryanair services from the airport will increase from July. Regarding the restoration of other routes and the introduction of new air services, I understand that the Shannon to London Heathrow route operated by Aer Lingus is expected to be back in September. I also understand that Aer Lingus has indicated its intent to come back on transatlantic routes and that Shannon Airport is working hard to get those routes back.

Again, I reassure Senators of my commitment and that of Government to continue to work with all stakeholders in the aviation industry. It is a most challenging time for that industry, not only in Ireland but globally. Government is ensuring that our infrastructure and airports, through funding and supporting our airports, are in a very strong position to be able to rebound as we open up international travel as we committed to on 28 May. As Senators have all alluded to, the date for that opening up is 19 July. Government is working extremely hard in preparing for that and, again, the number one ask from airlines and airports is to reopen international travel as safely as possible in line with public health. That is what we will continue to do in addition to looking at further supports, which may be necessary for the sector.

Sitting suspended at 5.42 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.