Minister ducks questions on Aran Islands helicopter plan
The decision to award the Aran Island air service contract to a helicopter company has been described as "disturbing" by the Irish Islands Federation.
The board, which is the representative body for the inhabited offshore islands of Ireland, warned the decision was a retrograde step which would damage the three island communities.
The criticism came as Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe refused to answer any questions on the issue during a transport conference in Galway yesterday.
However, at the same event, his party colleague, Fine Gael TD John O'Mahony, chairman of the Oireachtas transport committee, expressed his concerns about the plans.
"It is absolutely crucial that this service is not in jeopardy. We have to ensure there is an adequate air service, there can be no diminishment of the service," he said.
One of the largest concerns islanders have expressed is the relocation of the air service from Inverin, which is close to the ferry port of Rossaveal, to the opposite side of the city at the Galway Airport site at Carnmore.
The Islands Federation (Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann) said the existing service just 8km from the ferry port was an important consideration in times of bad weather.
Federation chairman Máirtín Ó Méalóid said: "It is incredible that an established service can be destabilised in such a manner without regard to the actual needs of the island communities involved.
"We now live in an age where the procurement process is more important than the result or the consequences of the result. It would be great to see common sense prevailing in this case.
"If a boat sailing is cancelled, it is possible to travel by plane instead," he continued. "This is not the case with the helicopter service, which will operate only from Carnmore, 25 miles from the existing air strip on the east side of the traffic-congested Galway City. This will make the transfer between ferry/airport and airport/ferry unfeasible," it said.
The federation also warned the proposed change would "lessen the sustainability" of the Aran Islands. It also raised concerns about the feared loss of 40 jobs as a result of the move.
Aer Arann Islands airline owner Pádraig Ó Céidigh said the move was the single biggest blow to the islands and would result in the closure of the airline company.
"Several Aran businesses depend on this service for import and export of goods and it is vital for the transportation of nurses and other health care professionals. The requirements of the users of the service, be they HSE employees, teachers, tradesmen, professionals, businesses, tourists or Islanders, have not been taken into consideration.
"The use of helicopters is a retrograde step that will damage three vibrant communities and lead to job losses in Gaeltacht areas," it said.
Mr O'Mahony told the Irish Independent he was hopeful a solution could be found today when Gaeltacht Minister Joe McHugh meets with islanders. However, he warned the issue would arise at the Oireachtas committee if the concerns were not allayed.
He said questions about the change to helicopters and the location of the airport needed to be answered.
"This would come under our remit and it is something we will look at.
"There needs to be reassurance and fears need to be allayed on these issues. Hopefully there will be a pathway to a solution when the Minister meets the communities," he added.
Mr Ó Méalóid called on supporters to attend a meeting with Mr McHugh at the Connemara Coast hotel at 3pm today.