I was referring earlier to airports and mentioned that Cork and Shannon airports are vital national assets and should be retained in public ownership. I had already referred to Dublin Airport. I said it would be unthinkable for anybody to suggest selling off our major harbours and ports. Likewise, it would be equally unthinkable to lose control of our main airports or, indeed, all our airports. Major problems are threatening the sustainable development of tourism, one of which is access to the regions. There are other problems facing our economy such as manpower availability, inflation and competitiveness.
There is a huge imbalance in tourism growth at present between the east coast and the rest of the country. One of the problems is that, with the traffic congestion on our roads, it takes more than four hours to travel from Cork to Dublin; the times arepro rata for other journeys. This problem is a huge disincentive to tourists who wish to travel outside the Dublin area. Our trains are packed and substandard and the air routes are extremely expensive for tourists. In terms of price, they are geared mainly towards the business sector.
For example, a return air ticket between Dublin and Cork can cost between £90 and £140 for a 25 minute journey. This is exorbitant and is an obstacle to regional tourism development. It is also possibly due to the monopoly enjoyed by Aer Lingus on the route. If they plan ahead, travellers can fly from Dublin to London for £50 or £60, but it can cost up to £150 to travel to Cork. There must be something wrong in that regard.
Regarding the future of Dublin, Shannon and Cork Airports, I worry about the plans Aer Rianta announced for Cork last year when there was talk of a private consortium bidding to take over the airport. Aer Rianta then held a high profile briefing session in Cork and announced plans for major infrastructural development, costing more than £60 million at Cork Airport over the next five years. Do the main elements of those plans remain on schedule? The investment plans comprise four main elements – airfield, passenger and terminal cargo facilities and access. The current status of each of these elements should be disclosed by the Minister in her reply.
Regarding the airfield, the main runway has been overlaid with asphalt and widened by the provision of 7.5 metre shoulders on both sides. This will upgrade the existing concrete surface and extend the life of the runway by approximately 15 to 20 years. An apron extension, together with the provision of a new taxiway and the upgrading of an existing taxiway, was scheduled to commence later this year. We were told this project would cost £8 million and take approximately 18 months to complete. Will the Minister give a guarantee that it will go ahead?
Regarding the now overcrowded passenger terminal, the plan is to increase terminal capacity to handle 2.5 million passengers per year by 2003 and to facilitate further expansion thereafter to handle growth of up to 5 million passengers per annum in the medium to long-term. What is the status of that proposal? In relation to cargo facilities, what is the status of the work that was due to commence midway through 2002? Will it go ahead on schedule? Regarding airport access, what is the position with regard to the new internal road systems and the provision of surface and multi-storey car parks? The growth in passenger traffic at Cork Airport is well in excess of all forecasts. This has created new pressures on the infrastructure. Will the Minister outline what exactly is happening in relation to Cork Airport.
There is ongoing controversy about the role of the Department of Defence in opposing the development of Eircom Park. South Dublin County Council recently gave planning permission for a 45,000 seat stadium in Dublin west. However, regrettably, the Minister for Defence and his Department have used an unpublished consultant's report to block that development. The contents of this report, which was carried out by a British consultant, Snow, are being put forward as reasons that the stadium should not be built.
There is a Freedom of Information Act, but I have been refused access to that report on the grounds that it is still under consideration. This is appalling and the unpublished report is being used by the Government to torpedo the FAI's proposal to develop Eircom Park. The report is being intentionally suppressed for that purpose.
I am concerned that the Bill could be used to introduce regulations that would allow a licence to be given now on the basis that, at some future date, Baldonnel could be developed as a commercial airport. Aeronautical safety standards could be cited as reasons to block Eircom Park. I understand the Air Corps has been quoted as saying that there is no problem with flight paths in relation to Eircom Park. However, the Minister for Defence and his Department objected to the planning application that the FAI submitted to South Dublin County Council. Part of the objection was that the stadium could interfere with operations at the aerodrome.
The Air Corps is reported as saying that there is no problem in respect of military matters. However, in the Bill, the Minister for Public Enterprise is proposing to give herself the power to make new regulations in respect of commercial activities at Baldonnel. The Minister for Defence could then say to the Minister for Public Enterprise that he wished to see Baldonnel expanded in the future and become a commercial airport. He could request that regulations be put in place now with regard to air safety standards. There is every possibility at this stage that the stadium may not go ahead because of the behaviour of the Minister for Defence and his Department. Regulations should not be made earlier than one month prior to the commencement of operations if such operations are to commence at Baldonnel. Regulations should not be made on the hypothetical basis that, at some future date, the aerodrome will become a commercial airport.
There is serious concern that the development of Eircom Park will be blocked by the Government to justify the construction of a national stadium at Abbotstown. Enough delaying mechanisms have been put in place already to stop the development of Eircom Park. People are most concerned that the Department of Defence will have an amendment made to the IAA Act to allow the IAA to have civil jurisdiction over military aerodromes. The Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, said in the Seanad that she would speak to the FAI to allay its fears, although the Department of Defence is attempting to block Eircom Park. Will the Minister outline if she has spoken to the Minister for Defence and the FAI since she gave that undertaking in the Seanad? It would be a pity if this Bill could be used to defeat what has been done by the FAI. I look forward to the Minister's response.