Published on September 11th, 2015 | by Jim Lee0
Brief statement signals climb down on Aran Islands Air Service – For Now
In a brief statement on 10th September, the Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs, Joe McHugh, signalled a significant climb down on his governments controversial decision to award the Aran Islands Air Service to Executive Helicopters Limited and shift the Galway base for the service from Connemara Regional Airport to Galway Airport at Carnmore. That decision, announced on 26th August, was greeted with shock and anger from residents and businesses on the Aran Islands, as well as with surprise and incredulity from commentators and aviation industry sources.
The award of the contract was however subject to the observance of a voluntary ‘standstill period’ of 14 days, meaning that no contract could be concluded until after the expiry of this ‘standstill period’ which expired on 9th September.
This breathing space was bound to be used by the islanders, justifiably irate, to lobby for a change, leading to the Government’s climb down, which essentially extended the ‘standstill period’ to 16th November and extended Aer Árann Islands’ existing contract to 1st February 2016. The reasons for this and the background to this latest decision are explored further below.
Islanders rally in opposition
Hundreds of islanders and their supporters travelled to Furbo, Connemara on 1st September, where a delegation had the opportunity to express their concerns to the Minister of State, face to face, while the remainder held a public meeting, followed by a press conference. Amongst the concerns outlined by the islanders were:-
- Would the preferred bidder (Galway airport based Executive Helicopters), be able to operate out of Galway airport after the end of the year? Doubts have been raised over the helicopter company’s ability to operate from the airport, given the fact the lease on the facility expires in December 2015. In November 2013, the two local councils, Galway City Council and Galway County Council, agreed to purchase the 115 acres site for €1.1 million. They signed a short-term agreement with Carnmore Aviation Limited, a company owned by the Conneely Group in Ballinasloe, in July 2014, to operate the facility. The Group also own Weston Airport and staff are shared between the airports. According to a council spokesperson, they had “not been involved in discussions regarding the proposals for a Public Service Obligation air contract for the Aran Islands.” “There is no agreement in place regarding the proposal. The current lease on the property to Carnmore Aviation Ltd expires in December 2015,” he added.
- In a statement, Coiste leis an Seirbhís Aeir a Chosaint (Save our Air Service committee) has pointed to the difficulties that would be experienced by islanders, in accessing the service, due to the change of airports. “Galway Airport is unsuitable for the requirements/needs of islanders. Connemara Airport (Indreabhán) with proximity to Ros a’Mhíl (the ferry port) offers choice, in terms of weather and preference”, it said in a statement. Connemara although 30.5km (19 miles) west of Galway city, is just 8km (5 miles), or nine minutes, by road from the ferry port. Galway Airport at Carnmore on the other hand, is 52km (32.5 miles) from Rossaveal, and is a one-hour road journey. This, seriously compromises the option of using the ferry if flights are cancelled due to weather.
- Doubts were also expressed about the viability if the helicopter service, both in terms of cost and operations. In a letter to the Irish Times, retired Air Corps officer, Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Byrne, who now lectures in aviation management, pointed out that helicopters can “be up to four times higher to operate than their equivalent fixed-wing counterparts, where such exist”. He also noted that although they use AVTUR, a type of kerosene that is cheaper than AVGAS, their engines need a minimum time before they can be restarted between flights. Therefore they “are much less suited to short flights where island-hopping is the norm; flying from Galway Airport in lieu of Inveran will certainly add to the flying time expenses”.
- He went on to make the point that if the existing island airports “become redundant, then some kind of heliport will be needed for commercial operations, complete with an approved crash rescue cover”. However, it should be noted that there is separate airstrip management contract in place and obviously there is scope to reduce this if the number of airstrips were reduced, or indeed, if Connemara Airport was closed.
- Tenderers were also required to provide a connecting road transport service to connect all air services from Galway and a cap of €20,000 per annum was placed on any subvention paid for the provision of this road transport service. Aer Árann Islands currently operates a minibus service from the Victoria Hotel, Victoria Place, which is just off Eyre Square, to Connemara Airport. The fare for this service is €3 each way. Carnmore is just 8km (5 miles) from Galway city, so the cost of providing a shuttle service would be much less. However there is no indication of the level of changes the preferred bidder might levy.
- The Office of Government Procurement was responsible for organising the public procurement process regarding and tenders for this contract and while no one is seriously suggesting that there was any impropriety in this process, the question posed by Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Byrne in his letter to the Irish Times, is central to this discussion “was there anyone with aviation experience involved in the procurement process in this particular instance?” If not then the process was flawed from the outset.
While the Minister of State’s meeting with the island delegation was widely reported in the media, what he actually said, or what assurances he gave, other than the vague comment that nothing was “signed nor sealed in relation to the contract”, was reported. His official statement released after the meeting, said little or nothing, apart from the fact he had listened to the concerns of the islanders and had understood “their concerns as an island community and the importance of the air service for them”. It went on to say that he also understood “the difficulties arising from any change to such a service” but added that he explained that his position “from the outset had been to ensure a continued air service to the Aran Islands, with significant financial support from the Government, in line with EU rules in regard to PSO services”. He declined to make any comment on the ongoing public procurement process or “to say anything that might prejudice it”. He added “the legal advice available to my Department is very clear in this regard. This is more relevant than ever now as it appears that one of the tenderers intends to appeal the outcome of the procurement process by way of a judicial review to the High Court”. He was later to cite “legal advice” as the reason for his subsequent climb down.
His colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Paschal Donohoe, coincidently in Galway on the same day, to speak at a Bus Éireann Symposium, initially refused to answer any questions on the matter. The symposium was ironically discussing the role of public transport in the development of balanced regional economies and how it can support economic development.
He latter relented, but confined his comments to hoping that Minister of State McHugh’s meeting would address people’s worries about the plan. “The decision was made as the result of a tendering process that everybody participated in, and I hope as a result of the meeting that is happening today people’s concerns in relation to it will be understood,” he said blandly. “But I also hope the way the new service could operate will also be made clearer to everybody who does have concerns on the matter.” He added that, having gone through similar processes before; he understood that people had concerns about how the decision was made.
It should be noted however that his new Irish National Aviation Policy which he launched on 20th August, does not contain a single reference to the Aran Islands service. So much for a comprehensive policy!
The islanders kept up the pressure right up to the last minute. Following a third meeting held in Kilronan on Inis Mór (Inishmore), the islanders took their cause to the capital, when just before the throw-in at the All Ireland Senior Hurling Final on 6th September, a banner towing aircraft flew over Croke Park, with the message ‘Save Aran Island Plane Service’. On 9th September they took their protest to the Taoiseach’s constituency office Up to 200 people travelled from the Aran Islands to Castlebar, Co Mayo. This led to Enda Kenny’s constituency colleague, Minister of State Michael Ring having to insist that the service was merely being changed, not cancelled – he added that he was “going to look into it”. Given that he is Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport one would have reasonably expected him to have already looked into it.
With the ‘standstill period’ running out, the hapless Minister of State Joe McHugh, having to face the islanders again, it was time for the climb down, leading to the statement referred to in the opening paragraph. By way of expansion Minister of State McHugh said: “in accordance with legal advice received”, it had now been decided “to extend the voluntary standstill period to 16th November 2015 with a view to obtaining clarification on the availability of Galway Airport for the duration of the 4 year contract from 1st October 2015 as set out in the Request for Tenders. The Department will be writing to the owners of Galway Airport in that regard”.
His statement added: “In order to ensure that an air service continues to be provided to/from the Aran Islands, the Department will be engaging with the existing service provider (Galway Aviation Services Ltd trading as Aer Arann) with a view to agreeing the terms of an extension to the existing contract from 1st October 2015 to 1st February 2016”.
“Minister of State McHugh will be maintaining his contacts with the island communities to ensure that there is a clear line of communication with them as the process moves forward” the statement concluded.
So what of the preferred bidder? A spokeswoman for Executive Helicopters Ltd said the company will not be commenting on the matter, due to constraints imposed on bidders, as part of the tendering process.
For the islanders it is only a partial victory and the matter could well end up in the courts. They are already facing a cut in service from five to two flights a day, increased fares and a service capped at €900,000 per annum. It is still only a four year contract and with EU public service obligation (PSO) funding in doubt in the longer term. Replacement of the islanders is also on the horizon in the not too distant future. It now time to take the necessary steps to put the service on a long term and sustainable basis. Maybe it’s time from some fresh thinking and the Scottish model when the state owns the aircraft and contracts in an operator may well be worth looking at. Certainly this type of debacle must never be allowed to happen again.