Wednesday, 6 October 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
Funding of €150 million has been approved for Cork Airport in 2004, even though the airport already has strong infrastructure. The six regional airports have been allocated €2.5 million per year for the next three years. They will receive €7.5 million over three years. The regional airports have sought more money, but they will still receive very little if they are given a small percentage increase. The sum of €2.5 million is not much when it is divided between six airports.
Knock Airport needs an investment of €40 million and a dramatic change in direction, rather than the mediocre funding it has been getting. It is an international airport, in fairness, just like Shannon and Cork Airports. If one examines its passenger numbers, one will see that Knock Airport is growing at a rate of 55% this year. A flight to Gatwick Airport was launched recently so things are happening. It is envisaged that the airport’s growth will be similarly dramatic in 2005.
I wish to give an example of the need for expenditure. It is estimated that the necessary passenger apron facilities for landing will cost €2 million. Category 2 lighting and associated developments necessary to reduce the number of diversions at the airport would cost €6 million. Safety and security developments are badly needed. The airport’s fire tender has been costed at €750,000. Some 28 projects are needed at Knock Airport, at a cost of €40 million. A sum of €150 million was given to Cork Airport this year.
Knock Airport employs 100 people and indirectly supports more than 800 jobs. Dublin’s roads are so congested that those trying to get in and out of Dublin Airport travel at a snail’s pace. One should examine the pace of development at Knock Airport, through which 400,000 passengers travel. It has taken 18 years to reach such a level, but that should have happened in the airport’s first four years of development. I ask the Minister of State to imagine the difference which balanced regional development would make to the country and to the lives of those trying to leave the County Mayo area.
Approximately 20 million people came in and out of Dublin, Cork and Shannon Airports last year. Is it any wonder there is congestion in such places? A fraction of that number — 250,000 people — came in and out of Knock last year. It is hell on earth to try to get in and out of Dublin because such an imbalance exists. Would it not make great sense to consider other development with the new terminal at Dublin Airport? Knock Airport was significantly restructured during the first phase of the national development plan, instigated in part by the Government following a report prepared by the then Department of Public Enterprise. Passenger numbers expanded rapidly, by 25% in 2003 and 55% so far in 2004, following that restructuring. Independent market assessments suggest that the growth will continue, to 1 million passengers in the medium term. Investment at Knock Airport is an imperative.
There was a significant underspend of €1.8 billion in the BMW region during the first phase of the national development plan. The economic gap between the east and west of the country continued to widen in that period. Approximately 25% of all job losses in State-assisted industries were in the seven-county western region. Those of us from that region are aware of the importance of airports to development. We are familiar with the challenges facing the western region.
In January 2004, York Aviation produced a report on the social and economic impact of airports in Europe. One of its key findings was that airports play an increasingly critical role in regional economies. Access to markets and external and international transport links are regarded as absolutely essential when business decisions are being made. Airports have a catalytic effect — they help to enhance business efficiency and productivity by providing easy access to suppliers and customers, particularly over medium and long distances. Global accessibility is a key factor for business location and success in all European regions.
International research has proven that airports stimulate regional development. That airports are major economic drivers in the western region is demonstrated by the fact that they supported 546,000 bed nights in the region in 2004. As long as Knock Airport continues to have an international runway length capacity of 2,300 metres, its potential will not be fully realised. The Government should have supported Knock Airport in the same way as it has supported Aer Rianta airports. It provides approximately €3 per passenger to such airports each year. The European norm is as high as €8 or €10. If the minimum Aer Rianta standard had been applied to Knock Airport, it would have received a capital investment of between €115 million and €190 in the last decade. Instead, it has received investment of less than €5 million. The Minister for Transport needs to have a vision for Knock Airport. The actions which have been taken until now have not addressed the problem and will not do so if they continue.
Mr. Callely: I thank Deputy Cowley for his kind congratulatory remarks on my appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Transport. It is interesting that an Opposition Member is calling on the Government to have a vision for Knock Airport. If I recall correctly, when a Fianna Fáil-led Administration supported the construction of Knock Airport, under the leadership of Monsignor Horan, those on the Opposition benches said that it would not be successful because it was being built on a foggy and boggy mountain. Neither Deputy Cowley nor I were in this House at that time.
Mr. Callely: Deputy Cowley is right to look to these quarters for vision. The general aim of the Department of Transport is to ensure that the gateway airports of the State have the appropriate infrastructure to provide a competitive service and to meet current and future needs of airlines and other aviation customers, consistent with a commercial mandate. The Department is committed to enhancing the contribution of the country’s network of regional airports to balanced regional development.
The recently enacted State Airports Act 2004 strengthens the Government’s policy by encouraging the development of State airports by means of the appointment of new boards for the Dublin, Cork and Shannon airport authorities. The State airports will continue to operate to a commercial mandate. The Government does not envisage that the revitalised State airports will require the provision of Exchequer support to meet their development needs. The changes made are designed to encourage commercially vibrant State airports which facilitate as wide a range as possible of reliable, regular and competitive commercial air services for Irish tourism, trade and industry.
The Government recognises the important role Knock Airport can play in stimulating more balanced economic development in the north west. The financial performance of the airport company has improved in recent years under the guidance of new management structures at the airport, and the airport company is no longer heavily dependent on Exchequer support as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. The importance of air access to the region is stressed in the national development plan, and the regional planning guidelines for the west region identify the need for a wider range of services at Knock Airport. The recent introduction of new services on non-subsidised routes to the UK is an encouraging development and will help contribute to economic growth through improved access to the region for business, tourism and inward investment.
In the recent past, traffic has grown significantly at Knock Airport. In the past five years passenger numbers rose from 197,000 in 2000 to almost 250,000 in 2003, and I understand from the airport company that the airport is on course to exceed 300,000 passengers for the first time in 2004. Much of that growth results from the introduction of the new daily services by low-cost operators on routes linking the region with large UK cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester. The programme for Government provides for the continued support of the six regional airports, and Knock Airport continues to avail of a range of financial mechanisms in support of that objective.
My Department provided €2.4 million in Exchequer grants towards essential infrastructure at the airport between 2001 and 2003 under the BMW operational programme of the NDP. The most significant project supported under the measure was an impressive new departures hall, which was supported with grant-aid of approximately €1.38 million. The primary purpose of the NDP measure is to provide grant assistance to facilitate the continued safe and viable operations at the regional airports. My Department is currently considering proposals for the allocation of further capital assistance to ensure that the airport can meet all safety and security standards. Under the CLÁR fund in 2003 the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, provided grant-aid of approximately €400,000 towards the cost of new car-parking facilities.
My Department also provides funding towards current expenditure on marketing, safety and security measures. More than €1.2 million has been allocated to the airport for this purpose since 2001. Air access to the region is also directly facilitated through the daily public service obligation service linking the airport to Dublin.
I am aware that the airport board has submitted a three-year development plan to the Department for consideration under the national development plan. The ambitious development plan incorporates new terminal buildings, expansion of the apron area to accommodate more aircraft, and significantly upgraded taxi-ways and navigational aids.
My Department will continue to assist Knock Airport in the interests of the economic development of the BMW region. However, the level of financial support will have to be carefully evaluated in line with the general scale of operations at the airport and wider transport and aviation policy. The commercial initiative adopted by the new management structure at the airport is encouraging and will help to ensure the long-term future viability of the airport as it responds to the many challenges and opportunities currently facing all airports in the increasingly competitive and liberalised aviation sector.
On my appointment to the Department of Transport, my good friend and colleague, Deputy Carty, contacted me regarding some of the information on grants that I have given here tonight. In the light of my appointment, and now, with responsibility for the Irish Aviation Authority, he asked me to visit Knock, and I have given him an undertaking that I will do that in the coming months. I will be happy to inform Deputy Cowley when that visit will take place.
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