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.