Seanad Éireann - Volume 94 - 18 June, 1980
Adjournment Matter. - Cork Airport Traffic Control.
Professor Murphy Professor Murphy
Professor Murphy: This matter arises from the recent announcement about the change of plans for charter flights out of  Cork Airport. The announcement, caused angry reaction in the south generally in tourist circles, among tour operators and the general public. Last year there had been no charter holiday flights, no so-called sun flights, out of the airport. The grievance appeared to have been remedied in the course of the last 12 months when the various interests involved, Aer Lingus, Aer Rianta, tour operators, worked out details of a series of charters this summer from Cork to the Continent: 40 charters to the Spanish resorts Las Palma, Malaga and 30 flights to Lourdes. The co-operation of the Department of Transport was necessary because air traffic controllers are employed directly by the Department. An estimated 7,000 travellers had booked up at Cork on these charter flights and all concerned looked forward to a big programme of direct flights which were booked extensively at the time in good faith by the tour operators, and a number had already taken place.
The Department of Transport were aware of the proposed series of flights by early March and made known the difficulties to Aer Lingus, but whoever is to blame it was not considered politic apparently to inform the public of the difficulties. The disappointment was all the more bitter when, seemingly out of the blue, it was announced last week that many of the planned charters, possibly as many as 50 per cent, would have to be, after all, rerouted through Dublin Airport, in either one or both sections of the journey. One does not need to emphasise the considerable inconvenience and the extra expense involved for holidaymakers and pilgrims who confidently had booked their places on charter flights. Not surprisingly, the Lord Mayor of Cork condemned the decision as “a seemingly national policy to centralise an increasing amount of activity in Dublin to the detriment of major growth centres such as Cork”. I have quoted from the Cork Examiner of 12 June.
Aer Rianta and the travel operators joined in the chorus of condemnation,  though they are not the real victims—arguably that policy of centralisation would suit Aer Lingus and would not necessarily be bad for the big tour operators. The decision is a business set-back generally. It puts in jeopardy the future of charters through Cork and therefore it has inconvenienced greatly the not so well off citizen who wants to budget for a direct and relatively inexpensive holiday or pilgrimage, for many an event of very rare experience indeed.
More fundamentally, the decision to cancel a large number of the charters brings into question the whole development of Cork Airport. At present the airport is open for 17 hours per day. It is a two shift service of eight-and-a-half hours per shift, closing at midnight. Flights outside the 17-hour period can be accommodated only if advance notice is given to all concerned so that staffing needs of various kinds can be met. Aer Rianta are prepared, and the record shows that they have been as good as their word in the past, to serve the community in this respect and can cope with the problems involved. It is a matter of gratification that Aer Rianta, in Cork at any rate, combine hardheaded business with a laudable dedication to serving the community and the idea of a community airport.
The crucial difficulty, however, and the reason for raising the matter here, is the seemingly inadequate staffing in air traffic control. It was the Department of Transport which informed Aer Lingus that they would not be able to organise the necessary all-night air traffic control service on more than, say, half the occasions required. According to the press reports—I have to quote again the Cork Examiner of 12 June:
A Department spokesman explained in reply to the Lord Mayor's protest that it was not the intention to downgrade Cork, and the spokesman as reported went on to make the suggestion that Aer Lingus should use Cork Airport within normal working hours.
If this is true the point misses the whole  nature of Aer Lingus charter operations. Their fleet is fully stretched, at least since their employees went on strike, by normal schedules and the only feasible time for charter flights are off-peak, late at night or early in the morning.
Disappointed travellers and a wider public feel that they are entitled to some explanation from the Department of Transport. What are the precise reasons for their inability to co-operate in an extension of hours at Cork Airport during the summer season? Is the Minister, as has been suggested, having difficulties with the Air Traffic Controllers Association about manning levels? Is the Minister somehow holding a line here?
The Government would do well even at the level of political self-interest to note a strong feeling in Cork at the moment that the needs of southern people are being overlooked callously in this regard. I do not want to turn the knife, but I need hardly remind the Minister that in Cork even the party faithful are less than enraptured with the Government.
Let us leave sordid considerations aside. The most important point that arises out of the present disappointing development is the question mark over the future of Cork Airport. Irrespective of the gloomy economic climate, cutbacks in spending, regard must be had to the potential of the airport. It is difficult admittedly at the moment to make convincing economic arguments in favour of a 24-hour airport in Cork, but the whole credibility of the airport's future is called into question if reasonable arrangements are not made for its functioning during the summer season. In this day and age it is ludicrous that an airport should be specifically open at night to accommodate particular pilgrimages only after public representatives had made particular representations. This curious development took place on two or three occasions in 1979. Though I understand the difficulties involved, I appeal to the Minister not to let the Department stand in the way of the development of Cork Airport.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport (Mr. Flynn) Pádraig Flynn
 Minister of State at the Department of Transport (Mr. Flynn): I am pleased to get the opportunity to reply to the Senator from Cork and to put his mind at rest about some of the matters he raised this evening. Without trying to be offensive, I would describe some of his arguments as somewhat misleading, and perhaps it is just as well that the record would be put straight so that the people of Cork, and indeed the people of the country at large, would know and recognise the facts of the case.
First of all, let me say that the Department of Transport have no difficulty whatsoever with the ATC in Cork or indeed with their ATC staff in any of the other airports under their control. There is no truth whatsoever in the suggestion that the arrangements as they are at Cork Airport at this time could put in jeopardy the future of charters out of Cork. On the contrary, the Department, the Minister and the Government are most anxious to widen the scope of activity in Cork Airport and to bring as much activity, whether by scheduled or non-scheduled services, as possible into the airport. That has been Government policy since the airport was opened in the sixties, continues to be Government policy and is being actively promoted as such.
To suggest that Cork Airport is inadequately staffed in any way is not true. Cork Airport is fully staffed, and it is as well to put it on record that it is not for 17 hours per day that the airport is functioning but 18 hours per day.
As far as staffing is concerned there is a slight excess at Cork to cater for short extensions and a small number of all-night operations. This has been the case for some time and continues to be the manning level arrangement for Cork Airport. There has not been a significant change in the published opening hours in recent years. The airport is open between Sunday and Friday from 7.30 a.m. until midnight and on Saturday from 7.30 a.m. until 10.30 p.m. The airlines and the tour operators, including those from the Cork and Munster area, are fully aware of the opening hours of Cork Airport  and it is a matter for them to schedule their flights in and out of Cork Airport during the opening hours.
It might indeed be helpful if airlines and tour operators would acquaint the Department in advance of particular requirements in a particular season. In that regard it is as well that it goes on record that the requirements for this season only came to the notice of the Department in the earlier part of this year. Even if the Department with the best will in the world want to provide extra staff for any particular reason at Cork Airport they could not do so for the simple reason that to recruit suitable staff for this type of operation under the ATC service would require from, day one to operational day, about 12 months.
The overriding feature that has to be considered in this matter, however, is that the safety considerations preclude the possibility of air traffic control staff working excessive hours. The Senator would do well to bear this in mind because it is uppermost in the minds of the Department in so far as any extension of service is concerned in Cork Airport. The safety factor is the one factor that we must not lose sight of. Indeed it is obligatory on us that we should not do anything that would lead to the slightest hint of danger attaching to it, and overstretching the existing staff at Cork would lead to such a situation. I doubt very much if the Senator would be a party to bringing in regulations or changes in the regulations that would in any way lead to a hint of danger at this airport.
It is well to remember at this time that staff cannot be transferred from other locations to take up the slack at Cork, because we just do not have any spare capacity staff anywhere else in the State. Even if staff were there, and it is of vital importance that people would understand this, even if we had spare staff in these very technical job situations we could not at a moment's notice transfer them to Cork, or any other airport for that matter, for the simple reason that they would not have the necessary rating  and they certainly would not have familiarity with the airport and its surroundings to make them fully conversant with the job specifications that would apply in the situation. So it is impossible to accommodate this demand at this time.
It is not an economic proposition to staff the airport all night for periodic openings for a very simple reason: if we were to take on extra staff, if we had them and if they could be deployed from anywhere else, we are talking about keeping staff there all night, a large part of it for one flight per night. I do not think that in any economic circumstances that is possible. However, seven all-night openings have been accommodated since April of this year and the Department have told the interested parties, both the tour operators and the airlines involved, that the maximum number that can be accommodated in safety is between four and five per month. If the airlines and the tour operators could be persuaded to reschedule their flights to take advantage of the services that have been provided by the Government in Cork during its opening hours, a lot of this tension and a lot of the strong feelings that have been referred to could be removed. If there is a shortage of aircraft in the national airline to accommodate themselves in this way then the opportunity is always there for them to hire out aircraft, but they have the opportunities and they have the wherewithal to accommodate all who wish to use this airport.
Reference has been made to the future of Cork Airport, and for the life of me I cannot understand how the Senator would suggest for one moment that any action taken by the Department or the Minister for Transport or the Government could be interpreted in any other way except that it is the commitment of the Government to develop the airport, and they have shown by their actions over the years that they believe that in good faith. Every demand that has been made as far as the airport is concerned has been agreed to. There is considerable development going on there at this very time.
 However, I personally, and I am sure the Minister for Transport would agree with me, would like to see the airport utilised to a much greater degree than it is at present during the opening hours. With that in mind, I would like to put on record that I will press all concerned in the area, the tour operators especially, to take full advantage of their airport and provide extra workloads for it.
I reiterate, however, that it is essential that security, and especially safety regulations, are adhered to stringently as far as the operation of the airport is concerned. It is with that in mind that the Department cannot agree at this time to having the airport open for extra periods because we cannot staff it from either Cork Airport staff or staff from any other airport. This has been made abundantly clear both to the airlines and the tour operators. They have been asked to bring to our notice, long before they schedule their services, what they have in mind by way of operations in and out of Cork. If they do that, then the Department will take all necessary steps to provide necessary staff for the schedules.
During the strike situation that exists at this time the pattern of flights at Cork has been altered considerably. There is only one normal scheduled service operating there, the Cork-London service. There are no charters  operating from Cork. We all hope that this strike will end shortly and when it does Cork will be brought back into full operational service, which is 18 hours a day. Where invalid flights are concerned, very sympathetic consideration will be given to accommodate flights at Cork outside the normal working hours.
To sum up, Cork Airport is fully staffed with the specialist services it requires to function as a major airport. There is not excess staff in any other location who could be sent to Cork to accommodate what the Senator wants. I emphasise again that safety considerations are uppermost in the Department's mind. We cannot ask the existing staff to stretch themselves beyond the normal limit. That might bring about a situation that would not be very safe for users of the airport. The Government are totally committed to the improvement of the Cork area in general, Cork Airport in particular. We will do all in our power to see to it that Cork Airport will play an important role in providing a full and comprehensive service to the people of Munster.
Professor Murphy Professor Murphy
Professor Murphy: I express my appreciation to the Minister for this reply.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 June 1980.
Seanad Éireann 94 Adjournment Matter. Cork Airport Traffic Control.