Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 9 May 2001

Vol. 166 No. 11

Adjournment Matter. - Gormanston Aerodrome.

I thank the Chair for taking this motion and the Minister for taking time to come to the House. The motion relates to the feasibility of developing Gormanston Aerodrome in County Meath as a possible site for a civil aviation facility. In commending the motion to the House, it is worthwhile putting on record the history of the aerodrome in Irish aviation.

It was opened as an airfield in 1917, 84 years ago, by the British and in 1919 employed 651 people, 65 of whom were pilots. These are remarkable statistics given that we consider aviation to be a creation of the 1950s and 1960s. It achieved infamy locally and nationally in 1920 as the base for the notorious Black and Tan raid on the adjacent town of Balbriggan, known as the sack of Balbriggan. It was taken over by the Free State Army in 1922. From 1946 to 1986 it was an Air Corps base and is currently in use as a training facility for Air Corps pilots.

The site at Gormanston contains approximately 270 acres and is bounded on one side by the Dublin-Belfast railway line and on the other by the main Dublin-Belfast road. It has existing aviation infrastructure which lends the venue in a unique way to development as a potential aviation site. It is also surrounded by unlimited acres of relatively flat land with a very low level of development. In the 1940s Sir Billy Butlin recognised it as the place in Ireland with the lowest rainfall, a situation which the locals say still pertains. He built his Mosney camp one mile from the aerodrome in 1946. The prevailing wind is south-westerly, which lends itself perfectly to an approach by air from the sea.

The uniqueness of the opportunity is particularly contextualised when one considers what we in north County Dublin refer to as Collinstown, better known as Dublin Airport. In stark contrast to the facility at Gormanston, Dublin Airport will process 14 million passengers this year. In recent years this number has been increasing at a rate of one million per annum. The often criticised facilities, we are told, are capable of dealing with 20 million passengers per annum. Subject to full development of facilities and infrastructure, we are told the campus has a possible capacity of 40 million passengers per annum. Currently, the throughput is 14 million and the airport is expected to be at full capacity within the next five years given the current infrastructure.

It is all very well increasing capacity and adding facilities, a situation beloved of many developments, but I suggest that while processing up to 20 million passengers through the current infrastructure at Collinstown may be relatively feasible, we must consider the congestion it will cause in the air. Currently there are major difficulties over Portmarnock, the principal approach for air traffic into Collinstown. To achieve the projected passenger throughput at Dublin Airport requires the equivalent of a dual carriageway in the air over the residential area of Portmarnock. There are already major problems there, particularly in relation to noise pollution, without referring to issues of safety. There has been a doubling of air traffic over the past ten years over the Portmarnock conurbation. There are also major access difficulties on the ground which do not require elaboration for anybody who has travelled the M50, and we are aware of the billions of pounds being spent on a light rail link to Dublin Airport.

Dublin Airport directly employs 8,000 people while 12,000 are indirectly employed in the immediate vicinity of the airport. The airport accounts for 2% of our GDP, making it an industrial giant. It requires careful attention to ensure the relatively uncontrolled development currently taking place does not lead to a deterioration in the services and facilities provided at the airport with a consequent impact on employment. The airport is fast approaching capacity and in the context of lead-in times for developments of this nature, four to five years is very little. I am here to urge the Minister to facilitate in every possible way the investigation of Gormanston as a viable site for a second airport which, by common consent, is required in the greater Dublin area. My reasons for doing so are worthy of repetition.

Gormanston Aerodrome is bounded on the north and south by hundreds of acres of relatively undeveloped and flat land, ideal for airport use. The site is bounded on the west by the Dublin-Belfast road, with immediate access to the M1, and immediately on its eastern perimeter by the Dublin-Belfast railway line. The aerodrome is 45 minutes by rail from Dublin and 75 minutes by rail from Belfast. There are currently two stations within one mile of the control tower at Gormanston.

In addition, it is immediately adjacent to the Irish Sea, with unlimited scope for runway extension out into the sea, as has been done at numerous airports throughout the world. I mentioned earlier the prevailing south-westerly wind is ideal for east to west access over the sea, thereby not causing any difficulties for adjoining conurbations. From a training and access point of view, the fact that the area has the lowest rainfall in Ireland will certainly strike a few chords with those who were involved in the development of Knock and Cork airports, both of which we were told could be totally unviable because of the low cloud level.

Gormanston is a very comfortable hour's drive from south Dublin, from the Border with Northern Ireland and it would bring one very close to Mullingar inland. The Minister's friends in Ryanair have made a fortune over the years working from airports such as Stansted in London, Beauvais near Paris and Charleroi near Brussels, all of which are in the region of an hour from the major city they service. Not only is Gormanston just 45 minutes from Dublin but it is a mere 75 minutes from Belfast, the two major cities nearest to the facility.

In my opinion Gormanston is highly viable as a civil aviation facility. It is incumbent upon us all to ensure an appropriate investigation is facilitated at this stage and that we are not in either House in five or ten years' time discussing the lack of aviation infrastructure in the greater Dublin area and referring to Gormanston aerodrome as being aviation's Harcourt Street line. It would be a travesty if we were to allow that to happen. I urge the Minister of State to give my motion every consideration and I commend it to the House.

I compliment Senator Glennon on raising this important issue.

I have had the hope for a considerable time that a flying training facility for commercial pilots would be established in Ireland. Commercial aviation is a central element of the success of our island economy and I would like to think that a career in flying would be a realistic option for our young people. The ability to train for a commer cial pilot's licence in accordance with international standards would be a very welcome addition to our aviation infrastructure and would eliminate the need for our young people to travel abroad for training.

Some time ago, my Department, together with the Department of Defence and the Irish Aviation Authority, investigated the possibility of encouraging private sector interests to establish a school for training commercial pilots at Gormanston. At that time there was a very obvious synergy for maximising the use of the aerodrome by civil aviation in addition to its use by the military authorities. This type of joint occupancy is well established in other countries. In circumstances where the facilities were expected to continue to be required for military use, it would have been practical to facilitate civilian activities at Gormanston at a price that could be afforded by the private sector activities. From the perspective of the Department of Defence, the income from the civilian activities would have been a useful addition to defence funding that would otherwise simply not have been available.

In this context during 1999, as a result of an initiative by myself and the Minister for Defence, a media advertisement invited proposals from parties interested in promoting and operating a flying training centre at Gormanston military aerodrome on a commercial basis. A number of expressions of interest were received from the private sector and these were examined by a steering group representative of the two Departments and the Irish Aviation Authority. The general conclusion was that there would be considerable financial risk attached to the oper ation of a training centre for commercial pilots as a stand-alone activity without support from a wider range of flying activities such as private pilot training, leisure flying and general aircraft maintenance. My Department was recently in contact with the parties that had expressed interest in response to the 1999 advertisement and it is clear nothing has happened in the intervening period to alter the earlier conclusion.

Now, however, the underlying economic circumstances have changed very markedly with the Minister for Defence's recent announcement that the Air Corps has concluded Gormanston Aerodrome is no longer required for military flying and will be offered for sale. Members of the Seanad will be aware that the Government has approved a major investment programme for the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence envisages that the proceeds of the sale of the Gormanston land will make a major contribution to financing that programme.

Naturally I would be pleased to see private interests bidding for the Gormanston facilities with a view to continuing flying activities there. My understanding is that the Gormanston land is likely to be worth considerably more for non-aviation purposes so that, unfortunately, this may not be a realistic prospect.

Clearly the situation now needs to be reassessed very carefully in light of these recent developments. However, I would be very disappointed to lose the possibility of a commercial flying school being established at Gormanston and I will be consulting further with the Minister for Defence on the matter.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 10 May 2001.