Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Questions (22)

Pat Breen

Question:

108 Mr. P. Breen asked the Minister for Transport when he expects his officials to have completed the negotiations on the Ireland-US bilateral air agreement; the case he and his officials have made to the US on behalf of Shannon; if he has made a case to the European Commissioner, Loyola De Palacio, for an exemption for Shannon; his bottom line in these negotiations; if he and his officials will cease negotiations if an acceptable package is not forthcoming for Shannon; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6834/04]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport)

As I have indicated to the House on a number of occasions, I have authorised my officials to seek negotiations with the United States on possible phased amendments to the Ireland-US bilateral agreement. No dates have yet been finalised for such negotiations. My Department has also been in contact with the European Commission to inform it of the intended negotiations with the US. While, on several occasions I have stressed to the Commission the importance of the Shannon issue for the Irish authorities, I believe the best prospects for achieving the most advantageous outcome for Irish aviation and tourism, including Shannon Airport, lie in direct Ireland-US talks.

On 5 February I met the Aer Rianta unions for further discussions on the dual gateway status of Shannon. There will be further discussions with the unions and the Shannon board designate before my negotiating position is finalised. The Deputy will appreciate that it would not be appropriate to publicise my negotiating position in advance.

I thank the Minister for his short reply, which is not really a reply. Given the reports over the weekend from US officials that Department of Transport officials have made a case for new gateways for Aer Lingus, will the Minister confirm that no special case has been made for Shannon? Within the EU open skies negotiations, the Commissioner, Loyola De Palacio, has stated that Shannon represents a special case. Is it true that no special case has been made for Shannon since the former Minister for Public Enterprise, Senator O'Rourke, did so? Is it correct to assume that the proposal by Aer Lingus to ask 50% of its staff to leave is a precursor to Aer Lingus leaving Shannon Airport to consolidate its business in Dublin? Does the Minister support such consolidation?

Both publicly at the Council of Ministers and privately to the Commission I have consistently made the case for Shannon Airport and will continue to do so. The US and the EU are engaged in talks about open skies, the first round of which is complete. A further round will take place in Brussels in the week commencing 29 March. I understand the Commissioner is adopting a two-phased approach with some progress to be made by June and the rest will await the outcome of the United States presidential elections. In the context of the US-EU talks it is important that we protect Shannon Airport.

The reason I have authorised discussions, which have not yet commenced, is to seek to ensure that, in the context of the USA-EU deal, we get a deal for Shannon with which the airport can live and that will allow Aer Lingus to continue to operate out of it and provide more gateways. Aer Lingus requires additional gateways to the United States. We cannot obtain those under the present bilateral agreement. For that reason it is necessary to renegotiate it, but that must be done in the context of the USA-EU talks.

Were I not to approach it in this way, we would be at the mercy of the USA-EU making an arrangement which could be some years away and which may not suit Shannon. It is critically important that we achieve an understanding with the United States so that, when that deal between the USA and the EU is completed, it will incorporate a clear deal for Shannon Airport that allows it to move forward strongly with Aer Lingus.

I do not support the idea of Aer Lingus exiting Shannon, nor do I believe the company has any intention of doing so. The present job situation there partly relates to baggage handling, which is being undertaken by another company for other airlines and not specifically Aer Lingus, although there are other disputes. However, Aer Lingus informs me that it intends to operate as soon as new gateways to the United States from Shannon can be obtained. It does not envisage exiting Shannon Airport. The contrary is the case.

How does the Minister intend to guarantee transatlantic services in Shannon, given the situation that has arisen in the context of Aer Lingus in recent times, especially in the context of its proposed summer schedule in which some of the transatlantic services out of Shannon are being scaled down? If fewer people work for Aer Lingus in Shannon, there will be fewer services.

I am also informed that Aer Lingus was not tendering for extra business in Shannon, especially regarding third party handling of baggage. What deals are in place for Shannon? There is no trust now. Workers in Shannon have no faith in either Aer Lingus or the Minister. Will the Minister give the workers a guarantee, especially where transatlantic flights are concerned, because they are the core — 44% — of business for Shannon Airport?

I cannot give guarantees. A commercial world approach is involved and I cannot give guarantees about that. Aer Lingus has a commercial mandate. It must make aliving. It informs me it is fully committed to Shannon.

We have been hearing that for a long time.

Aer Lingus still flies out of Shannon.

Just about.

Its passenger numbers out of Shannon are growing substantially.

There are fewer services.

I am told that Aer Lingus is fully committed to providing those services and to expanding them, if possible.