No choice but to keep Waterford Airport open, says Varadkar

Ministers deny that decision to give €5m to airport was ‘parish-pump politics’

An Irish Coast Guard rescue team flies above Waterford Airport. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

An Irish Coast Guard rescue team flies above Waterford Airport. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Minister for Transport Shane Ross has said if he refused to give €5 million funding to Waterford Airport it would have meant its “death knell”.

Mr Ross, his Independent Alliance colleague John Halligan and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Friday defended the funding decision against charges of it being a “parish pump” political decision favouring Mr Halligan’s Waterford constituency.

Mr Varadkar told reporters on Friday evening “I absolutely support the decision” to grant the money.

“You have to bear in mind that Waterford Airport has to stay open. It’s a coast-guard base. A couple of years ago we looked at moving it to Cork; that wasn’t viable, it has to stay in Waterford. So this is an airport that has to stay open.

“It hasn’t had commercial flights for a couple of years, and this investment has the potential to make that airport viable and profitable again.”

Asked whether it was a gift to Mr Halligan, the Taoiseach replied: “No.”

The airport has lain idle for passenger flights for the past three years after a service to Luton Airport was withdrawn.

Mr Ross has said the exchequer funding, in addition to another €7 million being raised by private investors and three county councils in the southeast, will allow the airport to extend its runway from 1,433m to 2,280m.

The longer runway, said Mr Ross, would accommodate large commercial passenger aircraft such as Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s.

The decision has come under criticism on the basis that Mr Ross’s Independence Alliance colleague, Mr Halligan brought Mr Ross to the airport in April to a meet local campaigners, public representatives and business interests.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform also advised against the decision. It told Mr Ross he would have to find money from his department’s existing budget to cover the decision.

Ross’s defence

Defending his position on Friday, Mr Ross said: “We looked at this very, very closely and I decided that there are risks involved in this, but the fact of the matter is the Government is only putting in 40 per cent into it and private investors and local authorities are absolutely convinced, putting their money on the line.

“If I was to refuse that, I would obviously be signing the death knell of Waterford Airport.”

For his part, Mr Halligan, who is Minister of State for Training and Skills, denied the Government decision was “parish-pump politics”.

Mr Halligan told RTÉ radio’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show that the southeast deserved the same infrastructure as the rest of the country. He also claimed €5 million was a “small amount”. 

“I genuinely think that the spin-off exceeds the €5 million investment [by the Government].

“For anyone to say that is just someone stumping up for Waterford – that’s not the case.”

Earlier, Mr Halligan had said: “If people want to say it’s parish-pump politics, I don’t care. It’s a big hit for the southeast.”

Waterford Airport has said it will be in a position to recoup the €5 million investment in four years. The airport has said a PwC report commissioned by it had concluded it had potential to create 100 jobs and draw an income of more than €5 million per year.

A number of local companies, including Glanbia, Leadmore Investment Company, Dawn Meats, Coolmore Stud and Stafford Wholesale are among the private investors who have pledged a total of €5 million. Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford county councils have committed to inject a further €2 million.

Conditions of funding

There are a number of conditions attached to the €5 million, including the airport being able to demonstrate that the extension can be delivered for €12 million, and it will only be paid when all upgrade works are completed and the runway is confirmed to be ready for service by the Irish Aviation Authority.

Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, who operated scheduled flights from Waterford to London when he led Aer Arann, said the development of motorways linking Irish cities had decreased demand for regional airports. He said the investment was a “reasonably high-risk proposition” but added that co-ordinated local support and the fact that the southeast air search and rescue was already based there could make a difference.

With an extended runway, Ryanair would be the obvious carrier Waterford Airport would hope to attract. A spokeswoman for Ryanair said it had “no plans for the near future” regarding Waterford.

Annual passenger numbers in the airport rose from 24,000 in 2003 to a peak of 144,000 in 2008. However, there was a steady decline from then until 2016, when the last passenger route – a VLM Airlines flight to Luton – was stopped. In the final year, 2016, passenger numbers had fallen to 13,500.