Are Galway Airport’s days numbered?

Aer Arann pulls flights and Government pulls funding

Galway Airport’s future is in serious doubt following the double blow this week of Aer Arann suspending its winter flights from Carnmore and the Government’s decision to cease its funding.

The airport will remain open during the winter, but at a lower level of operation. Although Aer Arann said it intends to relaunch services from Galway in April, the news has prompted a number of Galway politicians to declare that the airport’s days may now be numbered.

Yesterday Aer Arann announced it was suspending its services at Galway Airport over the winter with effect from October 31. The suspended routes are flights between Galway and London Southend, London Luton, Manchester, Edinburgh and Waterford.

Declining use of the airport by the public and a lack of bookings to take flights from Carnmore are believed to be behind the decision.

In a statement Aer Arann said it had taken this step because “bookings have continued to deteriorate” and all routes are “projected to be loss-making during the winter”. The economic situation has also seen “fewer people travelling” leading to “a significant reduction in fare revenues”.

“We sincerely regret having to make this decision and the impact this will have on our customers, on our staff in Aer Arann Regional, and on the staff of Galway Airport,” said airline chief executive Paul Schütz. “The reality, however, is that we are not yet a year out of examinership and not in a position to continue to operate routes that are not commercially viable.”

Aer Arann Regional has 35 flight deck and cabin crew based in Galway and all will be offered the opportunity to move to Aer Arann bases in Shannon, Cork, Dublin, and Waterford. Some redundancies may arise, but the airline said its priority is “to limit the number where possible”.

The Aer Arann hangar facility and engineering staff are not impacted by the decision to suspend services.

The Board of Galway Airport said it “deeply regrets” Aer Arann’s decision but that it is committed to the airport’s continued operation and the “future development of air services for Galway”.

The Galway Chamber, the majority shareholder in the airport, said it was “deeply disappointed” by the announcement and “deeply concerned regarding the employment situation” of the airport workforce.

Aer Arann’s decision comes as a double blow to the airport following the Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar’s statement in the Dáil that the Government “would not be able to provide operational or capital funding” to Galway Airport from 2012.

This followed a question by Independent Galway West TD Noel Grealish, who asked if funding will be provided to keep the airport open beyond the end of this year.

In June Minister Varadkar secured Government approval for additional funding to be made available to the State’s six regional airports for 2011, but this funding will cease for Galway and Sligo airports from 2012 onwards. The funding for the rest of this year is not affected by the Aer Arann decision.

“This decision is necessary to make best use of scarce Exchequer resources and to ensure the efficient use of taxpayers’ money,” said Minister Varadkar. “The Government is aware of the implications for both Galway and Sligo airports in making this decision.”

Dep Grealish said Galway Airport management had put forward a survival plan to see the airport self-financing by 2013.

“This would require the Minister to support the airport for one more year, which would secure jobs and supporting businesses,” he said. “By refusing to provide funding the Minister is ignoring the advice of the Galway Chamber of Commerce and local representatives about the devastating economic consequences of closing the airport.”

However Fine Gael TD Brian Walsh said a key part of the airport’s survival plan was that Aer Arann services continued at the airport.

“Aer Arann has withdrawn its services from Galway Airport because of commercial reasons,” he said. “The reality is that people were not using the facility. Vastly improved infrastructure linking Galway with Knock and Shannon has provided passengers with viable alternatives and people have been voting with their feet by not using the airport.”

The Galway Chamber said the Government’s decision to cease the funding “could not have come at a worse time” and “has made a difficult situation even worse”. The Chamber added that if other airports could continue to receive Government subvention, then Galway should as well.

“It has never been more important that this region be connected than it is now,” a spokesperson said. “This is a time for Government to prioritise connectivity, not diminish it. Where is the Government’s commitment to business in this region?”

Dep Walsh said the decision is “massively disappointing for the staff” but that the challenge is for politicians and business to work with the airport board to attract new carriers to Galway Airport and secure its future.

“However, the first question that any new carrier will ask when looking at the airport is: why did Aer Arann pull out? And the reason is that the public are not using the facility,” said Dep Walsh. “No amount of government intervention or subsidy is going to change that fact and it has to be acknowledged that the future of the airport is now in great doubt.”

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