Dáil Éireann - Volume 599 - 23 March, 2005

Adjournment Debate. - Airport Development Projects.

  Dr. Cowley:I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter on the Adjournment and thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to do so. Knock is Ireland’s fourth international airport serving up to 13 counties. Some 21 million passengers a year travel through airports in the south and east. Six million passengers travel through airports in Northern Ireland, which has almost the same population as the Border, midlands and west region. Knock Airport, however, with a projected figure of 500,000 passengers this year, is the starkest example of the failure to develop the BMW region. It is an example of unbalanced regional development and we are paying for it.

Knock Airport has a longer runway than Cork, yet it has been the poor relation for Government investments. The problem with Government funding to Knock International Airport is that it is tied to safety and security developments there. In the south and east, however, airport investment is directed to expanding the existing airports rather than just airport safety and security.

For years, Dublin has benefited from public sector support and is now capable of supporting substantial investment in other airports, such as Cork and Shannon. Knock has no such relationship with a large cash cow. Between now and 2007, an investment of €18 million is required at Knock to provide the airport with category 2 status which would greatly reduce any chance of plane diversions. It would also provide an expanded airport apron so there would be adequate space for large aircraft, such as the Airbus, which now use Knock Airport. This apron ensures aeroplanes with a fast turnaround time are not delayed, and, therefore, schedules are kept.

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Geographically, Knock is strategically placed. It is less than a one hour drive from nine regional urban centres or gateways and is the only effective international airport for most of them. Traffic numbers at Knock Airport in January and February last grew by 101% compared to the same period last year. In the past six months two new Gatwick routes, a Liverpool route and a second Birmingham route have been added to the existing routes at the airport.

Despite this, the Government intends to provide a second terminal at Dublin Airport at a cost of €150 million, which is projected to suck in 38 million passengers by 2025 and will further congest Dublin, where traffic is already reduced to the pace of an ass and cart. Getting in and out of Dublin Airport will continue to be a total nightmare. This is madness while an international airport at Knock lies underdeveloped and under-utilised, with one 40th of the passenger numbers [1767] of Dublin Airport. It beggars belief and flies in the face of common sense, as well as contradicting Government policy on balanced regional development and the national development plan. Just to the north, Northern Ireland, of a similar size and population to the west, has six million passengers compared to 500,000 at Knock. It is estimated that 5,000 new jobs will be created due to the building of the second terminal. They should be located at Knock and in the BMW region, where net industrial output grew by only 3.7% annually between 1990 and 1997 compared to 12.7% gross nationally.

Bed nights in tourist accommodation are down by 20% in the west although tourist numbers rose by 6% nationally, a point confirmed in the House yesterday by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, who suggested the drop was due to poor access. It is past time to end this madness. The development of Knock Airport is the answer to poor access and would do the congested Dublin Airport and its hinterland a favour. As new infrastructure would need to be put in place throughout Dublin to cope with increasing passenger numbers, rather than helping the situation a second terminal would only add to the imbalance and congestion that already exists. It is time to pull the plug and go for Knock.

  Mr. Callely:I am not sure I can agree with the wording of the motion from my good friend and colleague, Deputy Cowley, in regard to Dublin Airport. Proposals on the development of Dublin Airport are in the first instance a matter for the Dublin Airport Authority, which has statutory responsibility to manage, operate and develop the airport and to provide such facilities and services as it considers necessary for aircraft and passengers.

Dublin Airport will rightly remain the country’s main airport serving the needs not just of the travelling public in our capital city and the surrounding counties but of the country’s tourism, business and freight sectors generally. Notwithstanding the greatly welcome increase over recent years in traffic at Shannon and Cork airports and at the regional airports, including Knock Airport, Dublin Airport will remain crucial to the national economy. In this regard, passenger traffic through Dublin Airport is expected to grow from more than 17 million last year to an estimated 23 million in 2009 and is forecast to increase to 30 million by around 2017. It is also noteworthy that the national spatial strategy has acknowledged that the expansion of the level of air services from Dublin Airport to a wider range of destinations is essential in the interests of underpinning Ireland’s future international competitiveness.

The Minister for Transport is aware of the suggestion that the growth of Dublin Airport should be effectively capped and that further growth in Dublin-based air traffic should be catered for by a new airport on a green field site or [1768] through increased utilisation of the regional airports. The Minister, Deputy Cullen and I do not believe this suggestion is either feasible or practicable. As the economy grows, our infrastructure development must keep pace so that new bottlenecks do not emerge in the transport system. Dublin Airport has considerable scope and capacity to expand to cater for future growth in air traffic for the foreseeable future and, accordingly, Knock Airport could be expected to service the needs of Dublin Airport’s natural hinterland.

The Department of Transport is also committed to continuing enhancement of the contribution of the country’s network of regional airports, including Knock Airport, to balanced regional development. I am acutely aware of the good services emanating from Knock Airport and recently had the opportunity to meet the chief executive officer and chairman of the Knock Airport Authority. I congratulate them on the manner in which they have progressed the airport.

In the past five years, Knock Airport has received more funding than any other airport through NDP capital grants and assistance with marketing, safety and security initiatives. My Department provided €2.334 million in Exchequer grants towards essential infrastructure at the airport between 2001 and 2003 under the BMW operational programme of the NDP. The most significant project supported under the measure was an impressive new departures hall, which was supported with grant-aid of approximately €1.38 million. The Minister for Transport recently announced a further allocation to the airport under the next round of this scheme and an additional €2.3 million will be available for investment in the airport between 2005 and 2007. The Department of Transport also provides funding towards current expenditure on marketing, safety and security measures and more than €2.37 million has been allocated to the airport for this purpose since 2000.

Air access to the region is also directly facilitated through the daily public service obligation, PSO, service linking the airport to Dublin. The subvention paid by my Department to the contracted PSO airline is in the region of €200 per passenger per one-way trip. The existing PSO contract expires in July 2005 and I am pleased to advise there will be an extension of PSO for the three years commencing 22 July 2005. An EU procurement process for renewal of all PSO contracts is currently under way, in accordance with EU regulations for PSO air services.

My Department will continue to assist Knock Airport in the interests of the economic development of the BMW region. However, the level of financial support would have to be carefully evaluated in line with the general scale of operations at the airport and wider transport and aviation policy. The recent growth in business at Knock Airport is encouraging. I congratulate all those involved in the management and provision of services emanating from Knock. It will help to ensure the long-term future viability of the air[1769] port as it responds to the many challenges and opportunities currently facing all airports in the increasingly competitive and liberalised aviation sector.