Talks on Aran Islands flights deadlocked, says Seán Kyne

Deadline for contract talks extended after ‘stumbling blocks’ relating to airport identified

Negotiations between Aer Arann Islands and the Government over a new contract for flights to the Aran Islands are deadlocked, according to Minister of State for the Gaeltacht Seán Kyne, who said one final effort would be made to reach a deal.

The final deadline for concluding talks on the €3.6 million contract has been extended until the middle of this month.

The current service provided by Aer Arann Islands expires at the end of September, and the company has applied for the new tender.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has questioned the prices offered by Aer Arann Islands, which includes the cost of refurbishment of na Minna airport at Indreabhán to Irish Aviation Authority standards.

Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, who attended a briefing provided by department officials for Oireachtas members this week, said officials had identified "three stumbling blocks", all related to Indreabhán's airport and staff costs.

“We cannot pursue a contract if we don’t have an airport – and at the moment, we don’t have agreement on those terms,” Mr Kyne said.

The contract for air services to the Aran Islands is awarded under a public-service obligation (PSO) system implemented by European Union member states which applies where a transport system is recognised as being “socially necessary” but is “unable to generate enough revenue to make it economically viable”.

Aer Arann Islands, which employs 40 people, has provided the service for more than four decades from na Minna.

However, the Government attempted to move the service to Galway airport at Carnmore, on the east side of the city, last year when it named Executive Helicopters as the preferred bidder in a new contract advertised at that time.

The tender was cancelled by former Gaeltacht junior minister Joe McHugh last September after islanders objected to plans to fly in and out of Carnmore.

Carnmore is 52km from Rossaveal ferry port, which serves the Aran islands, while na Minna at Indreabhán and Rossaveal are 8km apart – providing an alternative when planes cannot fly due to weather.

Neither Galway city nor county council, joint owners of Galway airport, had been advised of the decision to switch to Carnmore, and that airport’s aviation licence was due to expire in December 2015.

Aer Arann Islands was asked to extend the existing service for a year, to the end of September 2016, and a new tender was advertised. Only one airport – at Indreabhán – is stipulated in the new contract.

Saying that the islanders believed the Government was not interested in providing the air service in the long term, Mr Ó Clochartaigh said the uncertainty was very damaging for the island communities and for tourism.

Last month Aer Arann Islands managing director Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh said he was in constant contact with the department on his bid for the new tender, and had provided it with all information requested.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

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