Aer Arann to quit contract for Aran Islands two years ahead of time

Gaeltacht minister Joe McHugh to meet islanders next week over latest transport row

Aran islanders are to meet Government chief whip and Gaeltacht minister Joe McHugh next week to try and resolve the latest row over the air link with Connemara.

Mr McHugh's department has confirmed that current provider Aer Arann Islands is surrendering its contract in six months' time – two years before its expiry.

Islanders heard confirmation of the development on Raidío na Gaeltachta on Wednesday, but Inis Meáin businessman Tarlach de Blacam says Mr McHugh was warned of problems 10 days ago.

“So two to three years after our campaign over the uncertain future of the air service, we have become the meat in the sandwich between the department and Aer Arann again,” Mr Blacam said.

The contract for 2017-2020 will now finish on December 6th, 2018, unless a resolution can be found.

Aer Arann is not commenting on the development, but it is understood that the company is unhappy with the lack of flexibility allowed in the public service obligation contract.

The contract covers about 3,500 annual flights between the three Aran islands and the Connemara airport at Indreabhán.

It is understood that the company had sought mediation to resolve issues with the department’s interpretation of the contract.

Trade union Siptu has called for a resolution, expressing concern about its members employed with the airline, which is owned by Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh and working at Indbreabhán and the three island airports.

A spokesman for Mr McHugh said he would be assuring the islanders next week of his department’s commitment to continuing the air service from December onwards, and looked forward to constructive engagement on the matter.

He said the department would be putting arrangements in place to seek public tenders in relation to those services “as a matter of priority”.

New ferry

Mr de Blacam said that even though a new ferry was running from Doolin, Co Clare this week, the island depended on the air service, especially during the winter. A socio-economic study undertaken in NUI Galway and commissioned by the islanders had made this case, he said.

This is the latest controversy to hit transport services to the Aran islands. In 2015 Mr McHugh had to abandon an initial tender which named a helicopter company as preferred bidder.

The company was offering to fly from Carnmore airport, on the east side of Galway city.

However, islanders were deeply unhappy about this proposed arrangement, pointing out that Galway airport at Carnmore was 52km from the ferry port at Ros-a-Mhíl, which provides an alternative when conditions are not suitable for flights. The airport at Indreabhán is just 8km away in south Connemara.

It also emerged that the department’s decision was made without confirming that Galway Airport was licensed for the link.

Aer Arann was then selected as the preferred tender under a new contract advertised in April 2016, which stated that Indreabhán must be used.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times