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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 14 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Transport Policy

Darren O'Rourke


59. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the measures that he will take to address the challenges in the taxi sector, including rising fuel and running costs and driver shortages; if he has assessed the likely impact of a further exit from the sector due to the ten-year rule; the degree to which he has engaged with the National Transport Agency and taxi representatives on these matters; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30744/22]

I ask the Minister of State what measures she will take to address the challenges in the taxi sector, including rising fuel and running costs and driver shortages. Has she assessed the likely impact of a further exit of vehicles from the sector due to the ten-year rule? To what degree has she engaged with the National Transport Agency, NTA, and taxi representatives on these matters? Will she make a statement on the matter?

I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Throughout the pandemic and more recently, the Government and the NTA have been actively engaged in ensuring appropriate and timely measures are in place to support the taxi sector in addressing the challenges it faces. I recognise that rising fuel costs are a significant challenge for all sectors. As the Deputy is aware, on 9 March the Government announced a temporary reduction in fuel-related excise duties of 20 cent per litre of petrol and 15 cent per litre of diesel. These reductions, which were due to finish at the end of August, will be extended until budget day in October, at an additional cost of €80 million. This should help to reduce the operating costs of all private and commercial vehicle owners, including operators of non-electric small public service vehicles, SPSVs. In addition, the NTA's national maximum fares review, which closed for public consultation on 27 May, proposes an average increase of 12% in taxi fares from 31 August 2022. This will be the first increase in such fares since 2017.

While the NTA has statutory responsibility for regulating the SPSV industry, taxi drivers are self-employed individuals and, as such, decide on their own business strategies within the regulatory framework, including choosing the times at which they operate. The NTA's 2022 driver survey shows that 93% of drivers are now working but only 29% currently undertake night work. Some 30% of drivers, up from 17% in 2019, reported that they would consider doing night work if the relevant fares were to increase. In recognition of this, the proposed fare increases have been weighted in favour of the premium rate that can be charged for journeys between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., as well as on Sundays and public holidays. The increase in cents and euro for each taxi user per journey is not substantial, but the cumulative impact is significant for drivers. The weighting in the increase has been designed to encourage more drivers to operate during these periods and also to encourage drivers who may still not have come back into the sector since the pandemic to reactivate their licences.

There is a crisis in the sector and I am not convinced from the Minister of State's answer that there is a full appreciation of it. I acknowledge the aspect regarding the fare increase and the weighted element in that regard, but there has been a significant exodus of drivers from the sector. It was reported just this evening that one of the taxi apps had 17,000 requests in a one-hour period over the weekend. We are hearing many stories about people, including women, waiting an inordinate time because of the lack of availability of taxis at night-time. This is going to be compounded by approximately 5,300 cars that are going to be taken off the road at the end of this year because of the ten-year rule. I raised this point before with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The Government needs to move on this ten-year rule.

On the ten-year rule, the NTA extended vehicle age limits several times during the pandemic, with standard age limits for taxis and hackneys now waived through to the end of 2022, thereby ensuring no operator exits the industry simply because of the need to replace a vehicle. These extensions of vehicle age limits were emergency measures in recognition of the challenges faced during the pandemic, including the necessary health-related restrictions imposed on society and the resultant collapse in demand for SPSV services. This situation is now much changed and there has been a resurgence in demand for SPSV services with increased levels of social activity and particularly at night-time. This is where the premium rate will come into effect to encourage more taxi drivers to come on stream, especially at weekends, Sundays and public holidays.

How many vehicles will be impacted by the ten-year rule in 2023, for example? How many vehicles are we likely to lose from the sector? My estimation, based on the figures presented to me by taxi representatives, is that the number is greater than 5,300. These are vehicles that have not been used for a couple of years. Most of them are in mint condition. Drivers have been struggling to get finance for new vehicles. They cannot get electric vehicles because there is a supply chain issue. The likely impact will be that many of those 5,300 vehicles will leave the market, which means the acute shortage we are facing now will be exacerbated. I am frustrated that I do not yet see an acknowledgement of this from the Government.

Of the 18,946 SPSV vehicles in the fleet in 2021, a total of 16,134 vehicles, which is equivalent to 85% of the fleet, were less than ten years old. A total of 2,359 vehicles were between ten and 15 years old, which represented 12.5% of the entire fleet. Approximately half of those, or 6.7%, were availing of the Covid-19 extension on the maximum permissible age. They were mainly taxis. The remaining 5.8% of vehicles were exempt from the ten-year age limit as a condition of their taxi licence or were older limousines. The number of vehicles older than 15 years was 444, which represents 2.3% of the total fleet. Of these, 150 vehicles, or 0.8%, were SPSVs availing of the NTA extension due to the impact of Covid-19. Most of the remainder were limousines.

Dublin Airport Authority

Duncan Smith


60. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Transport the way that he intends to engage with the Dublin Airport Authority throughout the rest of 2022; his priorities for the company; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30902/22]

What is the plan regarding engagement with the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, throughout the rest of the year? The Minister of State has had intense engagement in the last few weeks as the situation in the airport reached crisis point and then disaster levels a few weekends ago. While we have seen some improvement in services, not least because of the massive redeployment of emergency staff, I would like to know what the plans are to ensure the experience at the airport improves and will be on a solid footing throughout 2022 and beyond.

I thank the Deputy for this question and the opportunity to update the House on the current situation at Dublin Airport. We can all agree that the passenger experience at Dublin Airport recently has fallen far short of the service that passengers should expect at our largest State airport. The DAA, as we all know, has the statutory responsibility to operate and manage Dublin Airport, including all the operations associated with security screening. The immediate priority is to ensure that Dublin Airport passengers can have confidence they will not miss their flights when they arrive on time at the airport.

Following the unacceptable level of service experienced by passengers and the undue stress they endured, particularly on Sunday, 29 May, I re-established daily meetings with the CEO and senior management in the DAA. I conveyed to the representatives of the DAA my disappointment and frustration at the situation and emphasised the importance of the DAA setting out a detailed plan to address it and the urgent need to restore passenger confidence in Dublin Airport. The DAA outlined its plan and the operational changes to be made in advance of the bank holiday weekend. These included maximising the availability of staff resources, increasing the number of security lanes open at peak times and improving queue management. While last weekend and the bank holiday weekend were extremely busy, queues moved smoothly with no reports of flights being missed.

I continue to engage with the DAA on its resourcing plan and the passenger experience at Dublin Airport. I am emphasising the importance of the airport management reassuring passengers that it is doing everything it can to deliver an acceptable passenger experience for all those departing from the airport. Though challenges remain, the DAA has advised that the measures it has taken will substantially mitigate risk into the busy summer period where passenger numbers are expected to increase by a further 10%.

I thank the Minister of State for her update. There is no doubt that Herculean efforts have been made to ensure that passengers can transit through without missing their flights, but what is happening is having an impact. I would like the Minister of State to engage with Dublin Airport on a number of issues.

Regarding the special assistance and reduced mobility service the DAA provides, I have heard reports of people with reduced mobility being left on planes for extended periods of time as they are unable to get staff to assist them. From talking to workers I get the sense that the staff who usually do that work are stretched across other services. I ask the Minister of State to raise the matter with the DAA.

I have spoken extensively about the workers' experience, which is one of diminishing confidence in the DAA and declining job satisfaction. I would like the Minister of State to engage regarding the pay rates of the outsourced staff have been brought in, who are known within the airport as the purple vesters. Are these staff on higher rates of pay than the new security staff who have been brought in in recent months?

I will raise those issues with the DAA, in particular special assistance. Workers' pay is an operational matter for the DAA. I met SIPTU representatives recently and conveyed my appreciation for passenger-facing staff, in particular, who are under huge pressure in the airport. They have been managing queues, clearing people through security, helping to board passengers and working in extremely difficult circumstances. The representatives raised with me the issue of staff who had done overtime and had not been paid. This matter was also raised with the DAA. It was a result of IT issues. There was a cyberattack. I am told by the DAA those issues are being resolved.

I am glad to hear the Minister of State met workers' representatives and I hope that continues with SIPTU and the other unions representing workers in the airport. What we have learned and experienced over the past number of months is that there is a sense among workers and those connected to the airport that the ethos of the airport is changing. The idea that it is a place where people are proud to work, earn a good living and have a future through which they can progress is being eroded. That is something for which the State has responsibility, from an aviation policy perspective. It is the job of the Minister of State, through all of her engagements, to change that and ensure the DAA, as a State body, becomes a good employer which offers well paid jobs. The staff who are passenger-facing have done an unbelievable job. They have put smiles on their faces and have been fantastic in terms of getting passengers onto planes. However, beneath those smiles they are suffering and they need the support and backup of Government to ensure they can enjoy a long and successful career in the airport.

We all want functioning State airports in Dublin and elsewhere. Part of the pressure is the understaffing in the airport and the shortage of labour, something which is hitting every sector. Since recruitment efforts were redoubled in March of this year, Dublin Airport has seen a significant interest in advertised positions. I understand it received more than 5,000 applications. At our weekly meetings we discuss staffing numbers, training and the deployment of new staff to help ease the pressure on current staff who are under extreme pressure in the airport.

The operation of an airport is not a matter for the Minister; it is a matter for the DAA which has a statutory obligation in this regard. The Deputy can be ensured that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I are monitoring the situation. We want to continue to ensure that passengers have confidence that they can get to their flights on time, make their holidays, meet family and friends internationally and take the stress away from international travel.

Public Transport

Darren O'Rourke


61. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the year-on-year timeline for the delivery of the Connecting Ireland rural mobility plan; the budget that he intends to provide in each year to deliver this plan; the routes that will be commenced in 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30745/22]

I want to ask the Minister of State the year-on-year timeline for the delivery of the Connecting Ireland rural mobility plan, the budget she intends to provide in each year to deliver this plan, the routes which will be commenced in 2022 and if she will make a statement on the matter.

The overarching aim of the Connecting Ireland rural mobility plan is to develop an accessible, integrated and sustainable network of public transport services in rural and regional areas nationwide. In budget 2022, I was delighted to secure an allocation of €5.6 million to progress, develop and begin delivery of this important plan. To keep this momentum going, I will be working closely with my colleagues in Government to secure funding for the continued rollout of Connecting Ireland over its five-year implementation period, which started earlier this year.

Regarding the timeline, the delivery and improvement of routes identified through the consultation process on the Connecting Ireland plan are being prioritised to areas where Ukrainians fleeing the war in their homeland have been housed. Additional public transport services are being made available through an acceleration of network improvements, which include the provision of additional stops, route modifications and delivering more services with the aim of increasing connectivity. These services will ensure better access for all those housed in rural communities. Areas such as the Ring of Kerry will avail of such improvements, in practice catering for existing demands as well as responding to the increased pressures on services where the local population has grown in response to the humanitarian crisis.

I understand the services will be mainly provided by a mixture of Transport for Ireland Local Link and Bus Éireann services. Other examples of service accelerations already in place include those between the towns of Ennis and Ballyvaughan, Tullamore and Banagher, Ashbourne and Balbriggan and the Cavan-Monaghan area. I am advised that the NTA is currently in the procurement, planning and design stage for up to 40 enhanced services nationwide this year, with five aimed specifically at emergency transport provision. All going well, many of these services are anticipated to be operational by the end of the summer.

On the business case for Connecting Ireland, the final part of the Deputy's question, which includes provisional cost estimates, is currently under review in my Department. We are working hard to bring this ambitious plan to Government for its consideration as soon as possible.

This is an ambitious plan. We have submitted questions on the opportunities to expand on it. I understand there are 23 settlements with populations above 300 that have been excluded from the plan; all of the rest have been included and are promised a service three times daily, which would be a significant improvement. There are opportunities to expand the scheme, and that is something my party is trying to tease out.

The bigger issue is the implementation of the plan. The €5.6 million allocation this year is 10% of the total. The NTA stated in a response to me that it does not have a multi-year allocation and does not know how much it will be allocated in years two, three, four and five of the plan. That has a significant impact in terms of planning. Does the Minister of State have more detail on that? The provision this year is 10%. Will there be another 10% or 15% next year? I would appreciate if the Minister of State could provide an indication on that.

The business case for Connecting Ireland is still under scrutiny within the Department. It will then have to be sent to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for its review. After that process, the business case then has to go to Government for approval due to the scale of the investment envisaged, which is very ambitious. It would be premature to discuss the possible cost of delivering Connecting Ireland until the business case is fully examined.

Connecting Ireland proposes to expand the public transport network in rural areas. There will be a 25% overall increase in rural bus services and 70% of people in rural Ireland will have access to public transport services that provide at least three return trips daily to a nearby town. More than 100 rural villages will benefit from frequent public transport services for the first time. There will be more than 60 new connections to regional cities from surrounding areas and improved mobility options for those in remote areas with the provision of demand responsive and other innovative transport services.

The Minister of State mentioned a number of places. Does she have the figures on how many routes are now up and running? I welcome the services and understand the prioritisation of routes where there is demand from incoming Ukrainian refugees.

Of the 40 routes at design stage, does the Minister of State have an indication - I will be parochial about this - as to where in County Meath they are? I have a particular interest in one route, namely, route 163 in the consultation, which is to run between Athboy and Drogheda via Navan, Kentstown and Donore. Does the Minister of State have any details in that regard?

Examples of upcoming Connecting Ireland routes include: the 978 from Belmullet to Castlebar, supported by Local Link Mayo; the 880 from Naas to Carlow, involving timetable changes; the 183 from Arklow to Sallins, supported by Local Link Carlow Kilkenny Wicklow; the 419A from Clifden to Roundstone to Casla, supported by Local Link Galway; the 419B, serving Carrowroe, Ballinrobe and Claremorris, supported by Local Link Galway; the A79 from Ballinasloe to Castlerea, via Moylough; the A33 from Newbridge to Naas, via Allenwood; the A30 from Birr to Portlaoise; the B17 from Tarbert to Croom; the one the Deputy asked about, namely, the 163 from Athboy to Drogheda via Navan and Duleek, supported by Local Link Louth Meath Fingal; the 368 from Enniscorthy to New Ross; and the 369, serving Tullow, Bunclody and Enniscorthy. Those routes are under procurement, and the date I have here is around 15 August 2022.

Aviation Industry

Darren O'Rourke


62. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport when he intends to publish an updated national aviation policy; if he will outline the policy options being considered to deliver a more even distribution of air traffic between Irish airports in order to support the objective of balanced regional development; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30746/22]

The Chair will have an interest in this question. When does the Minister of State intend to publish an updated national aviation policy? Will she outline the policy options being considered to deliver a more even distribution of air traffic between Irish airports in order to support the objective of balanced regional development? Will she make a statement on the matter?

Before Covid-19, officials in my Department had commenced scoping work on a new national aviation policy. Unfortunately, that work has been on hold since 2020 for obvious reasons, that is, due to a focus on the detrimental impact of the pandemic. While we can now see the evidence that the recovery is under way, focus and resources have been diverted towards other objectives, including the terrible situation in Ukraine and the resultant restrictive measures that have been adopted in respect of the Russian Federation.

My Department hopes to resume work on a new national aviation policy before the end of 2022. Despite the delay in this work, however, the current national aviation policy, published in August 2015, continues to guide aviation policy. The principal goals of the policy are to enhance Ireland's connectivity, to foster the growth of aviation enterprise and to maximise the contribution of aviation to Ireland's sustainable economic growth and development.

Traditionally, Ireland has maintained a liberal aviation policy. That approach has served the country well. Before the pandemic, Ireland had air services to close to 200 destinations. While acknowledging that many of the objectives of the original national aviation policy remain valid, we also acknowledge that much has changed since 2015 in respect of the overall challenges for the aviation sector in Ireland, with a focus on continued recovery from the pandemic and a need to meet the decarbonisation goals necessary to achieve our climate ambitions.

The programme for Government acknowledges the value of aviation in supporting economic development, international connectivity and tourism and commits to delivering the capital programmes required to support services and to ensure safety at our State and regional airports. That is achieved primarily through the two schemes administered by my Department, namely the regional airports capital expenditure grant scheme and a core airport management operational expenditure subvention scheme. Those supports, along with the Covid-specific aviation supports provided, have ensured that our airports are well positioned in stimulating their recovery from the effects of the pandemic. Recent statistics indicate that, in respect of regional airport performance, smaller airports are closer to their 2019 scheduled seat capacity levels.

A number of members of the transport committee are here. Aviation has been a particular focus of our committee right throughout this period, since the committee was established under this Dáil, whether during Covid or, more recently, in respect of the issues at Dublin Airport. We are undertaking a series of visits to a number of our airports. We have been at Dublin and Shannon airports and are due to visit Cork Airport, although I have already been there with my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire. We hear about the challenge to deliver a more balanced throughput of traffic. Dublin Airport has advantages, of course. I live 20 minutes away from the airport. It will continue to be the national airport.

What policy levers are being considered? We know we have a liberal market, but what levers does the Minister of State have at her disposal? There are international examples. The Netherlands has achieved something. Are there lessons to be learnt from there, or what is being considered? Is it a priority of the Government to ensure a more balanced regional distribution of air traffic?

As for our current policy, the levers I have are through the regional airports programme. Under that programme, which runs from 2021 to 2025, €11.6 million in capital and operational supports was provided in 2021 alone to eligible airports, that is, Ireland West Airport Knock, Kerry Airport and Donegal Airport. There is also support for the public service obligation, PSO, services between Donegal and Dublin. In addition, the Government has provided funding for Shannon and Cork airports, as the Deputy will know, with more than €28 million in capital and operational supports in 2021 under the Covid-19 regional State airports programme. It is important to state also that there will be widespread consultation on our new aviation policy.

The Deputy is a member of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. That committee will have a very important role to play in stakeholder engagement and as to what our new aviation policy will be like as we come out of the pandemic. The Deputy can be assured of my commitment to our regional airports, ensuring that they are supported and funded and that Ireland Inc. is connected from a regional point of view and an international point of view. This is a really good time, coming out of the pandemic, to look at our national aviation policy, and our regional connectivity will play a key part in that.

We are constrained by state aid rules. The lack of State influence in Aer Lingus is a limitation. It is not one my party supported but it is one we have to live with. The transport committee continues to meet with representatives of regional airports. Members of the committee make the case that we want to hear from them and that they need to engage with the review of the national aviation policy. It is important that there are stated commitments and objectives in respect of that policy to seek to maximise the opportunity because there is so much that is consistent with what I believe are trends in respect of emissions, carbon footprint, regional development, regional balance and working from home. It just makes absolute sense to tweak and recalibrate, and to ensure there is a balance within the system in a way that there is not at the moment. We are an outlier in the context of our balance. We need to get to the bottom of why that is the case and work to address it. The Department will have the support of my party if that is the road it travels.

To give an idea of the policy areas that were identified in the scoping exercise in 2020, the themes included: international context and connectivity; safety and security; infrastructure, operations and enterprise; and sustainability and climate. Aspects for consideration included defining optimal connectivity and looking at how to shape a future direction for both State and regional airports, looking specifically at how best they support the economic and social benefits of the regions they serve.

It is also important to state as well that the operation of air services to, from and between airports remains a commercial decision for air carriers and our airports. That is something that I was very strong on even during the pandemic, when we did not have international travel but where I wanted to give funding directly to the airports so that they could negotiate directly with airlines in order to attract connectivity to the regions. It is important to say that these will be commercial decisions made by airlines. They will go to the airports which make viable and commercial sense for them also.