Rural airport passengers cost taxpayer €15 per flight
State has shelled out almost €90m in 'lunatic' subsidies over past six years
TAXPAYERS are subsidising passengers who use the country's regional airports by an average of €15 for every flight they take, an Irish Independent investigation reveals.
Around €90m in levies has been paid to subsidise domestic flights from six regional airports over the last six years.
In the case of Sligo and Donegal airports, the taxpayer is paying a massive €69 for each passenger using the facilities.
The subsidy agreement -- which concerns domestic flights on Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes from the regional airports to Dublin -- will terminate in July.
In total, since 2005, some €131m has been spent by the State supporting Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Knock, Sligo and Waterford airports.
This includes the €90m to underpin PSO routes and another €41m in operational supports and capital grants.
But with the taxpayer-supported PSO contracts due to end in two months, fears are mounting for the viability of four airports -- Galway, Waterford, Sligo and Knock.
The Irish Independent has learned the Government will only financially assist Kerry and Donegal airports with renewed PSO routes. Transport Minister Leo Varadkar will not be intervening in the policy set out by predecessor Noel Dempsey, who gave three-year PSO contracts to Kerry and Donegal, which are due to begin in October. The cost to the taxpayer for these domestic routes is unknown as they are still at the tendering process.
A spokesman for Mr Varadkar last night said the Government was encouraging other regional airports to attract their own investment and new routes. In the six years to the end of 2010, a total of 8.3 million passengers used the country's six privately owned regional airports -- a cost breakdown of €15 per passenger on the €131m handed over by the State.
In the case of some regional airports, the actual cost per passenger to the taxpayer is substantially higher.
Between them, Sligo and Donegal airports received almost €37m in state aid and saw just over 500,000 people go through their doors from 2005 to November 2010 -- meaning the average taxpayer support per passenger for the two airports was €69. Both airports received the largest PSO subsidies during that period, almost €32.5m, which is more than a third of all such subsidies paid since 2005.
Knock Airport registered almost 3.5 million passengers since 2005 to last November.
Galway enjoyed almost €20m in levies and a further contribution of €7m from the taxpayer.
With almost 1.5 million passengers travelling through the western airport since 2005 to last October, it cost the taxpayer an average of €19 per passenger. Galway Airport managing director Joe Walsh said 40pc of traffic to the western airport came from international hubs beyond Dublin.
"We are serving directly here to multinational and indigenous industries. There was a €31m return to the Exchequer in 2009 from all sectors in Galway and a €2.1m return from the 180 people employed here," Mr Walsh said.
The Western Development Commission -- set up to promote economic and social development in Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Clare -- has called on the Government to continue to fund regional airports. But DAA boss David Dilger said the current taxpayer funding of Ireland's regional airports was "little short of lunatic".
Leading academic Dr Ed Walsh called on the minister to conduct an integrated national transport study before making any decisions on the future of the regional airports.
"Ireland in the world competitiveness report doesn't rank very highly in terms of its transport structure," Mr Walsh told the Irish Independent.