Aran Islanders were feeling a sense of shock and deja vu last night as it was revealed that the air service serving the islands is set to cease at the end of the year.
The news came after Aer Árann notified the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht that it is to terminate its contract to operate Public Service Obligation (PSO ) flights to the islands in December, two years before the contract to supply the service is due to expire.
The company has served six months notice of its intention to end services in a dispute over the way in which the PSO contract is being interpreted and in particular on a charge of €500 that is served on the company for each non-PSO flight it provides.
The service operates from the Aer Arann-owned airstrip at Indreabhan and the agreement covers some 3,500 flights to and from the three Aran Islands each year.
This contract was due to continue until late 2020, but instead, islanders are now counting down the days to the end of the service this December.
It is understood there are disagreements between Aer Árann and the department about charges imposed for flights not covered by the contract. Seemingly, there is a charge to the company of around €500 for each non-PSO service it operates.
The problem arose soon after the current four year contract began in January 2017. The company said it sought mediation to resolve the issue but this has not happened.
The latest saga comes just a few years after the previous controversy when the Government named Executive Helicopters as the preferred provider, operating from Galway Airport at Carnmore. Islanders felt that helicopters were not a suitable mode of transport for islanders, and there were also concerns that access to and from Carnmore would be problematic for islanders travelling to and from the mainland.
Consequently, when the tender was re-advertised in April 2016, it was stipulated that the service would have to operate from Aer Árann-owned Na Minna airport, near Indreabhan.
In December 2016, Aer Árann was selected as the preferred tender to operate Public Service Obligation flights.
The Department pays the company a subsidy for the use of this facility.