Vincent Wall: Why our plan for failing airports is populist poppycock

A motorway between Cork and Limerick would be far more helpful...

Vincent Wall: Why our plan for failing airports is populist poppycock

A plane coming in to land at Dublin Airport | Image: RollingNews.ie

Where is the spirit of the no-nonsense late Chairman of CIE, Todd Andrews when we need it?

The thought crossed my mind as I navigated through some of the less-travelled pages of the new Programme for Government, specifically those sections relating to regional airports and regional rail lines.

The story goes that Andrews, having made the decision to close the loss-making West Cork rail line in the 1960s, met a delegation from the region that had travelled to Dublin to get him to change his mind.

He asked them to show their train tickets for the journey and when they had to admit they'd travelled by car, their goose and that of their beloved branch line, was cooked.

So why in an era when the roads network, and the motorway network in particular, has made the country so much smaller, do we still persist in pumping significant additional taxpayers’ money into non-commercial regional transport services that are used by a minority of the local population?

In a section of the Programme for Government that promotes the concept of an Atlantic Economic Corridor to revitalise the western half of the country (not a bad concept in itself) the new administration promises €10m in additional funding for Regional Airports.

"We will seek to invest an additional €10m to intensify efforts to properly prepare our regional airports for a future where they can operate on standalone commercial basis. This new investment will be in addition to the €28m already committed", the document boasts...

The fact is that this small State already has too many regional airports and probably a surfeit of international airports as well.

In a context where no-one is further than a three hours' drive from a major urban centre, we probably need no more than three across the island – Belfast, Dublin and somewhere in Munster, perhaps with a smaller commuter facility such as Knock, from Connaught.   

But up to recently, we had an airport in every county along the western seaboard – from Donegal to Waterford – other than Limerick.

And while the facilities in Galway and Sligo have recently ceased scheduled operations, Waterford is on life support with just one scheduled airline service to Luton, whilst Donegal, Kerry and Knock require significant tax payer support.

In the three-year period from 2011 to 2014 alone, close to €60m in public funding was provided to the non State-owned regional airports through a combination of operating subsidy, capital grants and subsidised Public Service Obligation flights.

The PSO payments for flights to Kerry, Donegal, Galway and Derry (yes, Derry) alone involved a subsidy of about €140 per passenger...

And now we plan to commit another €38m over the next three or four years, in addition to continued PSO subsidies for flights to Kerry and Donegal.

Forget it...

Inform these privately-owned facilities that unless they’re able to sustain themselves commercially within three years then all taxpayer support will cease.

The minority of people who want or need to fly into and out of Donegal can travel easily to Derry or Belfast; Waterford passengers can be in Dublin Airport in two hours and in Cork in an hour; ditto, the distance from Kerry to Cork or Shannon.

Then there’s the next paragraph of madness in the Programme for Government document!

"The new Government will provide for an independent costing and review of the Western Rail Corridor Phase Two between Athenry and Claremorris for passenger and freight use.

No measures will be taken to prevent the future reactivation of this corridor for rail use".

Populist poppycock…

Bring back Todd Andrews and shoot the thing. To date €105m in capital spending alone has been shovelled by the taxpayer into the Limerick to Athenry section of this line: a line that is used by an average of 750 people per day.

The Atlantic Economic Corridor would be better served by building a motorway between Cork and Limerick (of which there is no mention) and developing (and yes, subsidising), a comprehensive rural public bus network that might be of real value and service to the bulk of the population that don’t have cars.

Tickets please.