New 'open skies' deal to see end of Shannon stopovers

 

A new era for air travel between Europe and the US looks set to see an end to the Shannon stopover. The Government yesterday withdrew its long-standing opposition to an EU "open skies" aviation policy.

The Minister for Transport, Mr Brennan, told a meeting of the EU's transport council in Luxembourg that he was lifting the Government's objection to EU/US negotiations on an open skies policy.

The EU can now open discussions with the US authorities to create a so-called open skies area that would allow US and EU carriers to fly where they want without having to adhere to national agreements, such as stopovers at Shannon.

However, these negotiations could take two to three years and there should be no major changes at Shannon in that period.

Currently, under a bilateral agreement between the Republic and the US, half of all flights between Ireland and the US must allow passengers to disembark at Shannon.

While the moves are likely to prompt concern in the Shannon area, yesterday's developments are good news for Aer Lingus, with the State-owned airline likely to benefit from the opening up of the US market.

At present Aer Lingus can only fly to a small number of "hub" airports, but under an open skies arrangement it could service smaller US airports.

It believes there are large untapped markets of potential Irish tourists in these cities.

Mr Brennan said the Government would not let the Shannon stopover end without making sure a high level of aviation business was put in place for the airport.

He said that while there might be some concern in the area over developments at EU level, the new policy should also mean extra flights into Shannon and new airlines using the airport.

"We all need to roll up our sleeves now and make sure Shannon gets this aviation business. There is no way the amount of aviation business going through there is going to be lessened by any of this," he told The Irish Times. He said he had put down a "marker" at EU level that Shannon was not to lose out in the negotiations.

However, he said, there was no point in "putting our heads in the sand on this" and the ending of the stopover was "inevitable" at some stage.

Mr Brennan told yesterday's meeting attended by EU transport ministers that the stopover was a "key element of Irish Government support for regional development of the west of Ireland".

He said it remained a key element, but other developments were taking place.

"I have been conscious, in recent months, however, of a growing desire among member-states to move ahead with multilateral negotiations with the USA," he said.

"I have given serious consideration to the two issues of a recent European Court ruling and of the prevailing market conditions, as well as the possible implications for Shannon Airport and the region it serves.

"If there is consensus today, and clearly there is, I will not oppose the wish of the council to grant the mandate to the Commission.

"In that context, I will today lift Ireland's reservation on this issue," he added.

However, he said the Government would carefully monitor the progress of the negotiations and assess the draft agreement which emerged.

Recently the Tourism Review Group, set up by the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Mr O'Donoghue, recommended taking a fresh look at the existing bilateral agreement between the Republic and the US.

"An early renegotiation of the Ireland/US bilateral air agreement is necessary to achieve additional air services and enhanced visitor flows from North America, to the ultimate benefit of all regions, including the mid-west," the Tourism Review Group said.