Closing Aran Island air service could lead to island depopulation

The PSO for the air services amounts to an annual subvention of €1,880,913 to run the flights as well as the three aerodromes on the Aran Islands and the Connemara Regional Airport in Indreabhán. Aer Arann Islands currently employs 38 full-time and two part-time staff, to run these services.

The report says the Aer Arann PSO “compares very favourably to PSOs for other regional airports” such as Kerry (an average of €5,236,999 a year ).

In his conclusion, Mr Ó Briain said the “air service is critically important to the economic and social vitality of the Aran Islands community”.

He also stated: “It is already a struggle to retain young people on the islands without taking away such a vital transport service. A significant number of respondents also indicate that they would have no choice but to abandon the islands if the scheduled air service was discontinued.”

As a result, he said, “discontinuation or curtailment of the service is not an option.”

If air services to the Aran Islands are stopped, islanders will be left with little choice but to relocate to the mainland, leading to the depopulation of the State’s most populous islands.

This is the major finding of a new report, launched yesterday, on the economic, medical, and business role air services, operated by Aer Arann Islands, play in island life.

Islanders are extremely nervous about the future of the air services which are due for review in August. The flights are Public Service Obligations, which means they must be subsidised by the Government, as they are a social service but not an ‘economically viable’ one.

A Scheduled Air Transport Service Sustaining the Socio-economic Vitality of the Aran Islands 2014, written by Dáithí Ó Briain, a postgraduate in political science and sociology at NUI Galway, with assistance from Prof Micheál Ó Cinnéide, emeritus professor of geography, NUIG, argues that, “for the majority” of the island’s 1,910 inhabitants, the air service is “a critical part of island transport infrastructure” and “essential to the economic and social vitality of the local community”.

It bases this finding on the fact that 90 per cent of those interviewed for the report said the air service was “vitally important” in making the islands “a much more desirable place to live”.

One respondent said: “The air service connects the community to the mainland in the shortest amount of time which allows islanders to maintain a lifestyle equivalent to the mainland.”

Another respondent told Mr Ó Briain: “I would not live on the island if there was no airline. It’s a great peace of mind, but if the aeroplane went in the morning I certainly would not want to live on the island.”

The air services are used by 31.9 per cent of islanders for work reasons; 69 per cent for medical reasons, such as travelling to a hospital, buying medicines, etc; 62 per cent for shopping; and 12 per cent for education. A total of 96 per cent of respondents felt the air service was “vitally important” in accessing medical services.

Many respondents felt flights were “particularly needed during the winter months” when frequent storms made travelling by sea impossible.

Currently, the scheduled Aer Arann Islands’ services runs three daily return flights to and from Inis Mór on weekdays and two return flights on Saturday and Sunday. Inis Meáin and Inis Óirr have two daily return flights seven days a week.

It is strangely easy to forget that Ireland is an island. Part of that comes from the fact that, unlike Britain, Spain, or Japan, we have no real naval tradition.

Yet if you want to leave Ireland, there are only two means - via sea or air. There are no roads to other nations, and no Channel Tunnel. It is then that our island status comes forcibly to mind, and we remember, as the old songs goes “we’re surrounded by water”.

For the 1,910 people who live on the Aran Islands, being an islander is never an occasional remembrance, it is a daily reality and central to how they live, work, and indeed think about themselves.

For Aran’s population, the daily airflights provided by Aer Arann from the islands to the mainland is their bus, rail, taxi, and carpool. It is vital to being able to get to work; to get to hospital or buy medical supplies; it is safer than sea travel during winter storms; it is an essential prong in the islands’ tourism sector.

More than anything it allows the Aran Islands to be inhabitable, to give islanders a choice in making a living on Inis Mór, Inis Mean, and Inis Óirr, and to make the islands viable as a place of residence.

However islanders have become increasingly concerned about the future of the air service as it is due for renewal in August. The concern comes as the flights are ‘Public Service Obligations’, which means they are used in cases where a transport system is socially necessary but unable to generate enough revenue to be economically viable.

Considering that Finance Minister Michael Noonan is determined to take a further €2 Billion out of the economy at the next Budget, and that front line services have been slashed and decimated over the past five years, islanders are right to fear the wielding of any Governmental financial axe.

To end the air service though, would be a disgraceful dereliction of duty on the part of the Government, a fact forcibly brought home by a new report, A Scheduled Air Transport Service Sustaining the Socio-economic Vitality of the Aran Islands 2014, which interviewed Aran’s population and considered “the air service in terms of its economic and social benefits”.

Written by Dáithí Ó Briain, a postgraduate student at NUI Galway, the report pulls no punches in how devastating withdrawing air services would be.

“A reduction or discontinuation of the air service will make the Aran Islands a less desirable place for people to live, particularly for young people,” Mr Ó Briain wrote in his conclusion. “A discontinuation of the service would result in an economic downturn of the local area...In order to survive, Gaeltacht areas, such as the Aran Islands, need to be given the opportunity to keep their community economically and socially vibrant.”

The words of an Aran Islander quoted in the report are also pertinent: “There was no consultation with islanders on this and no debate on whether savings could be made on the ground rather than cutting the funding. The service is probably considered a luxury by ministers sitting in Leinster House, who only make it down to the West of Ireland when the sun is shining. For those of us living here all year round it is a necessary lifeline.”

The Government has placed great importance on repaying the debts and losses of bondholders - effectively, a subsidy for their gambling on the stockmarket - a loss they should have been expected to endure and take, that is how capitalism works after all. However the Government has a duty to subsidise what is a vital life line for Aran Islanders. Anything less than allowing Aran flights continue will be a gross insult to and abandonment of Galway’s island citizens.


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