A special meeting of Galway County Council will take place next week to discuss the future of the Aran Islands air service. Up to 20 politicians from across Galway visited Inis Mór, Inis Oirr, and Inis Meáin yesterday for a series of meetings aimed at saving the service.
Aer Arann has been operating a fixed-wing service to the Aran Islands from Na Minna airport in Inverin for the past 45 years. However the issue of transport to the islands has become hugely controversial since the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht awarded a new contract for the service to Executive Helicopters, to be run from Galway Airport in Carnmore.
As part of this contract, it is understood that daily return flights by helicopter will be provided between the islands and Galway Airport until 2019. However islanders are demanding the retention of fixed wing services within Connemara, and have announced they are seeking a Judicial Review of the Department's decision in the High Court
The new service contract was due to be signed last week, but the existing Aer Arann contract has now been extended until February next year.
Independent councillor James Charity has put down a motion to be debated by the council that any air service companies using Galway Airport must be prohibited from providing passenger flights to the Aran Islands. Councillor Charity believes that such services should only be through Connemara Regional Airport, and Galway County Council must insist such flights be via aeroplanes, not helicopters.
Cllr Charity also said 'serious questions' have been raised by the Department of Transport's approach to the tendering service for the flights. The local representative is unhappy that no permission was ever sought by the Department from the site owners (Galway City and County Councils ) to include Carnmore Airport in the invitation to tender for the air services. This has been confirmed by County Secretary Michael Owens and City CEO Brendan McGrath.
This, and the continuing concerns over the nature of flights to the Aran Islands, has led Cllr Charity to submit the motion, demanding any future leases of Carnmore Airport prohibit passenger services to the Aran Islands while Connemara Regional Airport is operative; that any move to change this be subject to the majority approval of the elected members; that no leasee be in a position to offer any service from Carnmore Airport extending past the duration of a lease agreement with that leasee; and that the council prefer a fixed wing air service connecting Connemara Regional Airport and the Aran Islands.
He is urging his council colleagues to support him. "As representatives of the community, we must then act to protect the interests of those who elected us and stop towing the line to officialdom," Cllr Charity told the Galway Advertiser. "This vote will require bravery on behalf of the elected members to stand up to the councils and department and leave aside party-political loyalties in the interest of a community that urgently requires our assistance. I am broadly in support of the retention of air services at the Carnmore, but it cannot be at the expense of another airport."
A motion was also submitted to Galway City Council - which has shared ownership of the airport with the county council - by Cllr Catherine Connolly, and passed at Monday's meeting in City Hall, calling for no contracts to be signed with Executive Helicopters to take over flights to the Aran Islands.
Questions over the tendering process were also raised by Cllr Connolly. City CEO Brendan McGrath, confirmed there was no agreement in place between the city council and Executive Helicopters regarding the use of Carnmore for the next four years. He also said the council had informed the Department of this on August 27. Mr McGrath further told the meeting that the feasibility study on the possible uses of the 115 acre airport site would be completed by the end of the month, and will come before councillors in October.
"Given the feasibility study has yet to be completed, it would not have been possible for either local authority to have given any sort of long term consent for the use of Carnmore Airport," said Cllr Connolly. "It is time for Minister McHugh to face reality and accept he cannot possibly sign any contract with Executive Helicopters."