Waterford Airport is in crisis and its future continuation in jeopardy, officials in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport have said.
An internal submission to Minister for Transport Shane Ross on December 15th, 2017, noted that a range of issues need to be considered before Government can decide on future policy for Waterford Airport.
It advised approval from the Minister for €375,000 to “safeguard the Coast Guard search-and-rescue for the first six months of 2018, while also allowing time for a full evaluation of the future of the airport”.
The note to the Minister also recommended that consultants be engaged “early in 2018” to undertake a review of the options for Waterford Airport, which last carried commercial passengers in June 2016.
The recommendations come after the Minister approved a letter to be sent to the airport at the end of 2016 pointing out that it would be “untenable for the department to continue to disburse taxpayers’ money in providing grant support on an annual basis to any airport from which no scheduled passenger services are operating”.
After that the airport tried to secure passenger services, and almost a year after the cessation of services by VLM, which filed for bankruptcy in Denmark, it announced new flights would commence from a "Scandinavian consortium" operating under the brand Aer Southeast.
However, shortly after that it became clear the airline did not have licence to sell commercial flights given by the Commission for Aviation Regulation. As a result, the airline had to refund customers, and flights that were due to launch on July 24th, 2017 were cancelled. That airline is still considering plans to operate from Waterford Airport, it is understood.
Even before Aer Southeast's plans at Waterford Airport, funding for the airport had been in question. Prior to a meeting with Mr Ross and Minister of State and Waterford TD John Halligan, a department briefing explained it could not recommend committing any further exchequer funding "in light of the current precarious situation at Waterford Airport".
The department had in principle granted approval to Waterford Airport in respect of capital investments for over €1 million in grants. Some €18,000 had been paid in 2016 in respect of alterations to a building for an air traffic control test centre prior to VLM terminating its services at Waterford.
The briefing noted that “all other projects approved in 2016 are ‘frozen’ until the future position regarding air scheduled services is clarified, and none of these projects can be commenced until that time”.
Additionally, the airport had been looking to extend its runway by another 150m to accommodate larger planes. Waterford Airport’s board had advised the department that it was “committed to securing the necessary funds from local sources” to fund the project considering it would not be covered under the regional airports programme.
In the 10 years to the beginning of February 2017, Waterford Airport had received almost €20 million in operational and capital support under the regional airports programme.
The airport recorded passenger numbers of 13,511 in 2016, the last year commercial flights operated there. The scale of the facility’s difficulties are evident from those passenger numbers considering in the same year a much smaller facility – Connemara Airport in Inverin, Co Galway, which caters for passengers travelling to and from the Aran Islands – carried 21,345 passengers.
A spokesperson for Waterford airport said: “Since scheduled passenger services were discontinued in mid-2016, Waterford Airport has not been eligible under the current Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport capital or operational funding schemes. However, the Airport board continues to work with all stakeholders to ensure it has a viable long-term future.”