"Long term damage" could be inflicted on the air service to the Aran Islands as the current contract for the service could force passengers needing flights for funerals or other 'unprecedented situations' to pay up to €35 extra per seat.
This is the view of Sinn Féin senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, who was reacting to a problem which has arisen over the terms of the public service obligation contract the Government has drawn up for flights between the County Galway mainland and the Aran Islands. It is the latest controversy to dog the service.
In December, Aer Arann was selected to operate the PSO flights to the Aran Islands. The decision followed a lengthy process over the future of the air route, with enormous controversy generated by the initial Government decision to make helicopters the new mode of transport, and to make Galway Airport the mainland arrival and departure point.
The new contract runs from January 1 until the end of 2020. However fresh controversy has arisen after Sen Ó Clochartaigh alleged there was a complication with the new PSO contract, relating to a requirement for additional fees on unscheduled flights.
"I understand the contract on offer from the Department of the Gaeltacht requires the company to charge extra fees on every flight outside of the PSO designation and that the company is not happy with this," he said, noting it had led to "an impasse currently in discussions" relating to the air service contract.
According to Sen Ó Clochartaigh, the PSO agreement only covers a certain number of set flights. This means if additional flights are needed for a funeral or other unprecedented situations, passengers will have to pay up to €35 per seat more than those on the flights covered by the PSO contract.
"Due to the inflexibility of the contract it will be difficult to implement a clear charging system," he said, "as the full extra cost on any extra flight will have to be divided between the number of passengers on board. It is feared the numbers currently using the service will drop and that this will negatively impact on the longer term viability of the service." He added it would be "very difficult" for people to calculate in advance what the cost of travelling by air to Aran would be, and that problems would arise, in the case of a passenger cancelling, over who gets priority if there is an over demand on PSO flights.
Sen Ó Clochartaigh is now calling on his Galway West colleague, the Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs, Seán Kyne, to "address these issues immediately". He has called on him to initiate talks between Aer Árainn and his civil servants, and take into consideration the concerns of Aran Islanders.