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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 3

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

An deireadh seachtaine seo caite, chonaic muid radhairc dhochreidte ag Aerfort Bhaile Átha Cliath nuair a bhí paisinéirí ag fanacht taobh amuigh den fhoirgneamh aerfoirt ar feadh uaireanta fada. Chaill níos mó ná 1,400 duine a n-eitiltí dá bharr. Ní raibh 1,400 ábalta a n-eitiltí a fháil. Ba náire náisiúnta é gur tharla a leithéid ag an deireadh seachtaine, ag déanamh dochair dár gclú agus ag cur isteach ar phleananna daoine a d'íoc as a gcuid eitiltí. Mar Aire Iompair, tá an Teachta Ryan freagrach as sin agus níor tugadh cuntas ar an mhéid a tharla go fóill. Lig Údarás Aerfort Bhaile Átha Cliath 1,000 jab chun bealaigh le bliain go leith. Cén teachtaireacht a chuireann sé amach don phobal mór nach bhfuil an Rialtas ábalta a chinntiú go bhfuil ár n-aerfoirt ábalta feidhmiú i gceart?

Last weekend we witnessed crazy scenes at Dublin Airport, as passengers were forced to wait for hours on end outside the terminal. More than 1,400 people missed flights because of the chaos. It was a national embarrassment that should never have happened. The Minister for Transport is responsible for transport and aviation but he has not been held to account for his role in this.

When the Dublin Airport Authority laid off 1,000 workers, Jerry Brennan of SIPTU told it that it will need to hire people because its queues will extend through the carparks. That is exactly what happened. The Government sanctioned this level of redundancy. Why did it do that? Everyone knew aviation would rebound once the pandemic subsidised, with pent up demand for international travel such as it is, except the Minister and the DAA.

While the DAA is responsible for operations at the airport, the Minister has responsibility for transport strategy. We constantly hear about the strategic importance of Dublin Airport given we live on a small island. It is a small island where connectivity to Europe and the rest of the world is so vital. It is a small island economy in which tourism is so important, supporting jobs, businesses and employment. It is crucial. In 2019 alone, almost 33 million passengers travelled through the airport. Many were tourists, business passengers and people travelling on a well-earned holiday. What does it say to these people that the Government cannot get an international airport to function properly on its watch? What does it say to our tourism sector that relies on Dublin Airport to function properly and a provide a service that tourists can depend on?

I am not convinced by what the DAA had to say yesterday. The wait times it set out are still too long. The idea that passengers would be triaged into some sort of holding areas is embarrassing. The fact that the airport plans to function with security staff levels at 70% of pre-pandemic levels is not acceptable. The Minister has been unable to give an assurance that we will not see scenes like we did last weekend. Frankly, he has been asleep at the wheel right throughout this process only to appear last weekend.

What does the Minister intend to do as Minister responsible for transport and aviation strategy if we witness scenes like we did last weekend happen? Can he say that heads will roll unless things are put right at the airport and passengers have speedy access through the airport and not suffer the indignity and chaos that we saw last weekend?

I have been meeting the aviation industry throughout, particularly in the Covid period. I met the board of the Dublin Airport Authority several months ago as well as the airlines and I meet all three airports regularly. It has been a difficult time. It was very difficult managing through Covid but we have absolutely been focused on what is in the interest of the Irish public and the travelling public to make sure they are served. They were not served last weekend. Everyone accepts that. It was totally unacceptable. Mistakes were made in rostering and in making sure there were enough people. It is inexcusable. It seriously let down the airport, the workers and the country. That is agreed. We have to rectify it. Myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, have been meeting the airport authorities every day to make sure they do put plans in place to make sure it does not happen again. They cannot guarantee that but we will make sure that everything is done to avoid it.

At a meeting this morning, they said that some 225 new staff are in place. It will take another three weeks with about an additional 30 staff a week as they come out of training. They committed this morning to hire and train a further 100 staff to make sure they have room for any eventuality so that what happened does not happen again. We in government will do whatever we can to support them to avoid that.

They made a mistake - I think it was in May 2020 - when the original decision was made to apply the redundancy scheme. Too many workers were let go. That is clear now but the critical thing the Irish public wants to know is that the additional staff will be put in place so that they can get through the airport without missing a flight and without being put through a triage system that requires them to stand outside the concourse. That is only there in case of emergencies. It will be introduced this weekend but only on a very small-scale basis. In the event that anyone is restricted from entering, they should not be standing outside in wet weather. That is not how airports can or should run.

Dublin Airport has a long history and is an excellent airport. The staff and management there have real skills in running airports and they need to get back to that. They can and will do that and the Irish public will not have to queue for two-and-a-half hours. However, it is important that we put out the message that the public arrives within the timelines suggested. This morning it was slightly difficult because, again, a lot of people probably arrived too early. Following advice about when to arrive is the first thing we need to do. It will be managed and people will get through. I am confident about this weekend and the summer period. If it does not happen, we will have to take further measures. Nothing will be avoided to ensure Irish passengers do not have that uncertainty or huge stress. When you are meant to go on your holiday, starting with huge uncertainty over whether or not you will make it is the last thing we can tolerate or accept.

We could spend the whole time scoring points or just talking down about people or kicking them in the process. The key thing is to make it work. That is what the workers and the management in Dublin Airport are committed to doing. It is not just those airports. It is happening in airports throughout the world. We see the neighbouring island's airports suffering the same but that does not excuse it. No one will make excuses. We will make sure it works and make sure the travelling public is not inconvenienced because that is what it expects.

From what the Minister said, one would swear this happened out of the blue over the past couple of days. The Minister talked about further measures. He talked about how the DAA has committed today to another 100 staff being employed. Back in March, we had a problem. The travelling public would have expected that the Minister, who is responsible for transport and aviation and part of the Government that signed off on a redundancy package for 1,000 staff which has left that airport at a point at which we cannot guarantee that passengers will not miss their flights this weekend, would have taken a hands-on approach at that point. The fact the Minister is telling us today that the DAA is committing to employ in the future another 100 staff shows us that the Minister has not been dealing with this issue effectively and that he has been asleep at the wheel. Assurances were given last week that we would not see the chaotic scenes that happened at Dublin Airport and yet they materialised. As the Minister for Transport, if we see those scenes again, will he hold those individuals at DAA accountable? Will they continue to be in their positions? Will the Minister explain to the Irish public why his Government signed off on a redundancy package that was completely and utterly unacceptable?

The Minister to respond.

It tried to cut too deep and the Irish public and tourism sector were left exposed as a result.

In March, we realised there was a problem and we engaged directly with the airport, which also recognised there was a problem. There was a particular problem coming into the Easter period. We engaged with the company, the European Commission and others to try to make sure that the security arrangements in the airport would allow us to get those passengers through. We got passengers through. It was not an ideal situation. No one wants to queue for an hour, let alone any longer, but people did not miss their flights. It was managed up to last Sunday. No one can excuse what happened last Sunday because that was intolerable. However, to describe the period from March to then as inactive is not true. Yes, it was slow and not as many people got through the training programme as quickly as had been expected. The airport was the first to admit that in the committee hearings yesterday, but there was no inactivity from anyone. No one was shirking the responsibility.

How many meetings did the Minister have with the DAA at that time?

I do not know how many dozen times I have met it over the past two or three years.

The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, meets it on a daily basis with my adviser and I come in on a regular basis to check and make sure what we are doing. I engaged with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and others to make sure that the whole of Government was involved. We were active. We were engaged.

We are way over time.

Everyone was let down at the weekend and we all accept the responsibility for that, myself included, but-----

I also wish to raise the issue of Dublin Airport. Just two months into the pandemic, the DAA announced its redundancy programme. A gun-to-the-head programme was announced. It was obvious that some organisations used the pandemic as cover for a restructure and to reduce costs. The DAA falls into that category. Despite Mr. Phillips's insistence that the DAA was desperate to hire security staff, its initial recruitment guaranteed just 20 hours. People had to be available for 40 hours, but DAA guaranteed them only 20 hours, which has now increased to 30 hours, at €14.14 per hour. This is a job with significant responsibility. People have to be available over weekends. Shift premium is built into that €14.14 in these flexible contracts. Is it any wonder that the airport has a shortage of hundreds of staff, when it offers those kinds of terms? That has to be part of this discussion. That kind of flexibility is not sufficient to allow people to pay their rent or childcare and certainly not to have a second job.

After the Minister met with the DAA back in March, passengers were advised that they should be at the airport two hours in advance of short-haul flights and three hours in advance of long-haul flights. Today it is two and a half hours and three and a half hours, respectively. However, if a passenger wants to put a bag in, which most do, it is another hour. One is really talking about three and a half hours to four and a half hours, respectively.

What I would describe as a fiasco that has flown under the radar until now is the fact that Dublin Airport abysmally failed an EU security audit some time ago. Officials from the European Aviation Safety Agency tried to smuggle dangerous items such as firearms, knives and improvised explosives through the airport. Of the ten smuggling attempts, seven were successful. What has the Minister been told about the absolute guarantee of security? What evidence has the airport given the Minister?

I have no doubt the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, met with the DAA, but what did it tell the Minister? What was the discussion about? Was it a discussion about delays? Was it a discussion about recruitment? Did it talk to the Minister about the payroll problem? What was the substance of the issues that the Minister discussed with the DAA? What assurance did it give him? Did the DAA give them the evidence of how it would resolve these issues? What did it tell him about security and how it can guarantee that what happened with that security audit will not happen again?

We meet on a daily basis about what is happening in the airport on a given day and the resource situation. This morning, there were 13 lanes open in terminal 1 and ten lanes open in terminal 2. In regard to the times, while not in the ordinary manner of the way an airport works, were nothing like the scenes that had been seen previously. We need to check on a daily basis to make sure that the public is not inconvenienced. That is the first and most important thing we discuss every day. It has been primarily about how we get in the staff and resources and deploy them. That has been the key issue, not just in this sector or airport, but in others. Training and making sure that those people are in place has been the key issue going right back to March.

As the Deputy said, the original redundancy occurred two years previously, in the first few months of the Covid pandemic. No one knew then what the future of aviation was. For long periods, there was real concerns as to whether our airlines and the airports would be able to survive. What we in government also discussed on an ongoing basis was the provision of supports for the airports, especially regional airports which were further and worse hit, but also Dublin Airport, to try to make sure we got through the crisis during which aviation disappeared for two years, in effect. The numbers went down.

Since that time in March, there has been razor-like focus on resources in terms of training, deployment and staffing. Up to last weekend, it was incredibly tight and it is still tight. The reason Dalton Phillips was not able to give cast-iron guarantees at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications yesterday is that we are still in a very tight situation. There will be some 50,000 passengers today, 45,000 tomorrow, 49,000 on Sunday and 50,000 on Monday. The airport is counting those because the resources are not yet back. Those are pre-Covid passenger numbers and our resource numbers are not yet back. They will be very shortly, but in this tight intervening period, we talk about how we can make sure we manage through this difficult period. We will manage by throwing everything at it. We will throw staff at it and bring staff up from Cork. We will look at a range of different options and further options as needs be.

I will speak about the wider issue. The Deputy has a long record in discussing issues about working conditions, the nature of work practices and their ethics or ethos. We need to look at just-in-time contract arrangements for workers to create much more stable and certain working conditions in order that we hold on to people, do not have to employ more people and can get the best sort of working environment. Dublin Airport can be, has been and will be that. However, we need to look at the industry in a broader perspective with regard to practices of keeping a very tight margin and tight timelines.

The Minister did not address the issue of security. Will he address that when he replies?

This is an important job. Significant training is required. An issue that will be central to sustaining the airport in the future is the quality of the employment. What is being offered to people who have to be available over any 40 hours in a week? It could be a Sunday, a Tuesday or a Friday night. What kind of quality of life is that for €14 an hour? That has to be addressed with regard to the future sustainability of the airport.

There were other issues such as filthy toilets. If people have to wait for three and a half or four hours, they need places to sit, even in this chaotic time. That is unacceptable and it is often the last thing that people recall when leaving the island after having a holiday or doing business. Will the Minister address the security and job issue, please?

The point about security is well-made and publicly acknowledged. It shows that the training, getting the right people and the skilled nature of this work are very real. One frustration in recent weeks has been from people who have gone through the training process but did not eventually get the job. When we were short and every number mattered, people wondered if we could just turn a blind eye, but we cannot do that with security. It is a highly-skilled, demanding and testing job. It is not just about the scanning job, although that is the critical pinch point, but also about how one interacts with the public. If they have to search someone, such as with a body search, that has to be done in a careful and experienced manner.

It is not yellow pack.

No. That is why we cannot just turn around in an instant and say we will let everyone in. That does not work in aviation. Aviation is based on the most secure systems, with nothing being left to chance and with the highest protection levels. That is one reason it has been difficult for the airport to get the numbers in in the timelines we need it to.

Good afternoon to the Minister and colleagues. I raise a local issue with the Minister today. While it is primarily local, it has international significance. I had a pint in the South Pole Inn in Annascaul, County Kerry, a while back. It was Tom Crean's old pub. Last week, I got to visit the Shackleton Museum in Athy. I am not sure if the Minister has been there but I thoroughly recommend a visit. Many people do not appreciate the links that Kerry and Kildare have with the south Atlantic and with the Antarctic, in particular. It is on that basis that I raise the issue of the Antarctic Treaty with the Minister and specifically the fact that Ireland has yet to ratify it. It is an excellent treaty. Like all good treaties, it is very short. It is only seven pages long. It is written in plain English with no legalese. It is fully available on the Internet with just a single click. The essence of the treaty is noble. It wants to maintain the Antarctic for peaceful purposes only, to make sure that it remains a demilitarised zone, that there is no nuclear testing, that there is no disposal of nuclear waste, and that any research from scientific stations there is shared with other signatories to the treaty. It is unusual that Ireland is not involved in this. The treaty was established in 1959. It initially had 12 signatories and now has 53. Those 53 countries represent 80% of the planet's population.

Despite the great links that Ireland has with the Antarctic, there is no intent to sign up to this treaty that I am aware of. There has been a campaign for the last 20 years. I give credit to Senator Mark Wall, as well as to Senator Vincent Martin from the Minister's party, who have raised this in the past. There have been positive soundings and there has been no official resistance to it, but as yet there has been absolutely no delivery. Perhaps it is appropriate that Shackleton's ship was called the Endurance, because this campaign has displayed remarkable endurance in persevering and trying to wrestle with the bureaucracy to get this project over the line.

Has there been any process in advancing Ireland's ratification process of the Antarctic Treaty? Will the Minister kindly update the House? Is there any indication that the ratification process will be completed by the end of the year, as previously committed to?

The Deputy is right that there has been a long tradition in this country, because we are a small island nation, that we look out. Looking out on the world, why not look all the way, like Shackleton and others who engaged in that exploration and period of discovery and caught people's imagination? Today, the Antarctic is the subject of razor focus again because it is one location where the future of humanity on this planet will be decided. If the Antarctic ice sheets disappeared, the level of flooding would be beyond on compare. Dublin would be gone. Annascaul might survive because it must be 50 m or 60 m up, but Tralee, Inch and Dingle would be under water. It is in all our interests to understand what is happening in the farthest reaches of the world. I commend the Deputy on the question, because sometimes we need to think big and look beyond just the immediate issues to think of the real challenges facing us.

The Deputy mentioned some politicians who addressed this. When we were last in government, my colleague, Mary White, pushed for us to be a signatory of the Antarctic Treaty. The Department of Foreign Affairs and other Departments were commissioned to look at what was required. The answer was that there was a complex legislative issue. We left Government as time passed and no more progress was made. In this Government, last year, the Taoiseach wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to ask the Department to lead work to re-examine the merits of signing the Antarctic Treaty. The Department of Foreign Affairs undertook to carry out an assessment to establish an up-to-date picture of what would be required in administrative policy and legislation. Its report was provided two months ago, in April. It outlines the complex legislative requirements. The Attorney General advised that what would seem a simple stroke of a pen has implications for the law that would apply to our citizens.

The great thing about the Antarctic Treaty is that it creates a safe neutral space, at a time when the world is a war. It is a space where it is agreed that the ordinary rules of international agreement are different. It is a place for sharing scientific knowledge, for prohibiting nuclear testing, for real environmental conservation, with rules relating to fishing, waste disposal, territorial claims and military activity. All of those require underpinning to make sure that we adhere to them. They are real commitments with real consequences. That report from the Department of Foreign Affairs was completed recently and is now being shared with other Departments with a view to bringing it to fruition. It will not be easy. It is a legislative and bureaucratic challenge, but we should overcome it. Particularly with the wider world today, Ireland thinking globally would be good.

I thank the Minister for his response. The treaty is only seven pages long but I accept that there are some bureaucratic hurdles. I am slightly reassured that there has been some progress. This year is important because it is the centenary of Ernest Shackleton's passing. The climate crisis and the war in Ukraine are still raging. I appreciate and welcome the fact that public funds are being pumped into the Shackleton Museum in Athy at the moment. There can be no better, more fitting or appropriate way of honouring Shackleton's memory than signing off and ratifying this treaty before the year's end. In summary, Ireland and the Irish have been actively involved in the discovery and exploration of the Antarctic. We should remain committed and be actively involved in its conservation and preservation.

I met one of Shackleton's relatives recently. She is an organic farmer who is doing advanced, interesting science, research and farming, using new, innovative techniques to reduce emissions and create high quality food. That spirit and capability lives on in this country. We need the Department of Foreign Affairs to work with the other Departments, which it has committed to, to untangle a short treaty which requires complex legislative changes.

The Taoiseach has been in communication with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and all three parties in government are engaged in this. I very much take the Deputy's question here as an opportunity to press the issue and push for the signing of the treaty. When that happens, we might invite all the Shackletons and all others to come to witness it as recognition of that historic tradition we have.

In Ireland our circular economy rate is at 1.6% while in Europe it is at 11.3%, which certainly shows a shortfall. Today I want to talk about Shannon Airport. Does it not make sense that the national aviation strategy be changed to address the under-capacity use of Shannon Airport and the overuse of Dublin? Where is the regional development strategy in all of this? Shannon Airport, gateway to the mid-west region, has the largest industrial base outside of Dublin. The region has transitioned to a low-carbon economy driven by industry. The airport has been voted best for customer experience and digital. It has the latest technology in its scanning system. Its infrastructure is suitable. It cuts down on flight emissions to be landing in Shannon rather than Dublin. It saves many people travelling by car, bus and train to Dublin where services are over-utliised and car parking is at an all-time premium cost. It supports a circular economy.

How can any Government justify having 87% of traffic through Dublin and 13% of all other traffic going through the other regional airports? The Minister comes in here day by day saying he wants to lower emissions yet we have thousands of cars parked in Dublin. People are travelling up from the country to get cheap flights from Dublin because the Government has allowed that airport expand from 31 million and now they want to go to 40 million. The Government starved every other airport around this country from business by letting a monopoly go in Dublin so they are priced out of the market. If I was to fly tomorrow morning the cheapest flight would be from Dublin. However, if I work in the cost of travelling to Dublin, the car parking charges which are three times dearer than any other airport in Ireland and the emissions, it costs more to fly from Dublin.

The Minister is supposed to support all of this country. He roars and shouts every day about emissions, emissions, emissions, yet he supports Dublin Airport for 87% of the traffic and the emissions from airlines flying out of Dublin also. The Minister is here for the whole country. Dispersal of traffic was mentioned to him in the convention centre over a year ago. Shannon Airport can cater for up to 4.5 million passengers. Cork can go to 5 million. However, the monopoly of all the businesses are shoved into Dublin. The Government asks people to go there from all over the country where there is no infrastructure and they have no choice but to drive to Dublin to get cheaper flights although it is costing them more. The Government takes the most out of it in tax.

I agree with the Deputy. I was going to bring it up when I was answering Deputies Doherty and Catherine Murphy earlier but I did not have time. Out of what has happened in Dublin Airport in the past few weeks and last Sunday in particular, we looked to see if we could bring people up from Shannon Airport to help in the immediate crisis but that was not possible. We need to look the other way to see if we could bring people down. I do not disagree with the Deputy. We have an imbalanced country. It is not just that all the flights are coming in and out of Dublin; all the roll-on, roll-off trucks are coming in and out of Dublin. Half the housing is in the greater Dublin region. We need better balanced regional development. There is no two ways about it. Particularly, we need the cities of Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick to grow as poles of attraction.

I agree with the Deputy about Shannon Airport having a real potential role in that. That is why right through this crisis, I did not just meet Dublin Airport but went down to Shannon Airport. I was very impressed with the management team there, I will be honest. I thought they were really top notch. It was not their fault that the airport numbers had not grown, particularly with Covid. It was no one's fault, it was Covid. Their numbers had not grown in the same way as those in Cork or Dublin, particularly Dublin. Part of what we need to look at now in aviation policy is whether we can do some rebalancing and take some of the pressure off Dublin Airport and give Shannon a lift.

In the middle of the Covid crisis, we paid for a whole new scanning system in Shannon. Passengers going through Shannon do not have to take anything out of their bag, no little plastic bag for liquids, laptops and everything - none of that. They go straight the way through because it is state of the art. I met the head of security in Shannon Airport and he was telling me about how it is working. It works like a dream. People can get in and out in no time. We have to provide better connectivity, bus services immediately. I would love to build rail and we are looking at that. That is one of the first things I said about Shannon Airport. I do not disagree with the Deputy. Better balanced regional development is one of the things we need to do, and not just in aviation, but it is as good an example as any.

It is great that the Minister and I agree on something for the first time since I have come up here. Tomorrow morning the Minister could divert flights from Dublin to Shannon and 3 million people would get out of this country with no delays. Some 2 million more people in Cork can be redeployed. The Minister was talking about bringing them up to Dublin but I am talking about taking them out of Dublin.

I have people from Dublin ringing me on a constant basis telling me the Government has destroyed their future and that of their children and grandchildren because it allowed Dublin to be overpopulated and they can no longer afford for their children to live there. They want the Minister to deploy everything back to the regional areas so all our families can live, if they want to live in Limerick or if they want to live in Dublin they are allowed do that. Dublin has been overpopulated for years and all the business has been shoved into Dublin. It is time it was dispersed around the country. Then the proper transport infrastructure would work on a business case basis because the population would be dispersed. We could have proper rail, bus and transport systems. The failure of the Government is that everything for years has been shoved into Dublin that needs to be dispersed around the country.

Dublin will still grow but the others need to grow faster. That is what the national planning framework says. It is not that it is going to do down Dublin. If everything is in Dublin, that is not good for Dublin because we will not be able to cope. It is in Dublin's interests that Limerick thrives. Shannon is very much connected to Limerick and has to be seen as part of the Limerick metropolitan area. The centre of Limerick, particularly, has to thrive.

Deputy Catherine Murphy asked earlier about what we talk about at meetings. One of the things we were discussing in the past week is whether we could do exactly as the Deputy suggests. Could we not just divert flights down? To be honest, it has great complexities and difficulties and it would not work. We would have people coming in to the country who may be going to Dublin and have already booked a flight. If we just switch the flight we will cause significant disruption and difficulty in that regard. In looking at this over the last week after the difficulties we had last Sunday, there was not that easy solution. Some other airports have done it in the UK and in Frankfurt as I recall. It tends to be done on a voluntary basis from the airlines if they see they can do it in a way that does not disrupt passengers. We cannot do it unilaterally. It is difficult enough having to queue but if people are told they are arriving somewhere they did not expect to go to, that would present difficulties. It is not an immediate solution but the longer-term solution is to look for better balanced regional development, I agree.

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