Monday 26 September 2016

Aran islanders left flying in the face of adversity

Wayne O'Connor hears of Inis Mór residents' fears as their vital airplane service is replaced by helicopter link that could add 52km to their journey

Published 05/09/2015 | 02:30

An Aer Arann flight lands in Connemara with Inis Mor in the background.
An Aer Arann flight lands in Connemara with Inis Mor in the background.
Agnes and her Dad Martin Joe Conneely on Inis Mór

The hunt for All-Ireland tickets was in full swing in Galway this week but for residents on the Aran Islands, the golden ticket in future could be one of eight seats on a daily air service to the mainland.

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Locals are reeling after the Government made plans to replace the current plane link between the islands and Galway's coast with a helicopter service.

Gaeltacht Minister Joe McHugh's announcement that the Public Service Obligation (PSO) contract will go to a helicopter company also means inconveniencing locals who would be diverted to another airport 52km out of their way.

Islander Michael Hernon's father Colm founded the airplane service to the mainland in 1970. Michael is visibly upset and outraged at the Government's decision.

"Dad was on the lifeboats at the time bringing sick people to hospital and he thought there was a better way of doing that. He was right and that's how the plane came along," Michael explained.

"I think this is a way of getting rid of the service and my worry is that eventually there would be no air service to the island. It would be like going back to the 1960s," he added.

"In an indirect way, the Government is destroying us."

The airport currently being used at Inverin is a short 8km hop from Rossaveal ferry port, allowing customers easy access to a boat when bad weather forces flight cancellations.

However, Galway airport and Rossaveal are more than an hour apart, with heavy traffic en route.

To those familiar with airports, the experience at Inverin is utterly unique.

We arrive for a hassle-free check-in five minutes before departure.

However, instead of the luggage being weighed, we are asked to stand on a scales so the crew can determine where everyone will sit on board to balance the nine-seater aircraft.

We are perched next to a bag of post and a primary school pupil who had to spend last night in Galway so that he could make it to rugby training there.

He flies over and back twice a week, staying overnight with family on the mainland, and said that the plane helps him to live a normal childhood.

"Even a child in school can see what is happening," said Michael, who operates a shuttle bus from Inis Mór airport.

"My fear is that because people don't trust the [helicopter] service from Carnmore [Galway airport], they will take the boat more often. Then the department will turn around and say we don't need it - but we do need an air service," he added.

"Coming from Carnmore is going to cost us the price of a B&B in town because we can't make the boat on time from there."

Michael's wife, Peggy, a New Yorker who has lived on Inis Mór for 25 years, said that missing the ferry would have a more serious impact on her.

"I was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in 2010 and it will never get better. I am on home dialysis and have a machine that I connect myself to every night," she said.

"What will happen now is that anyone who cannot make the boat will have to spend the night in town. For someone like me, who is on dialysis, it could mean a night at the hospital," she added.

"Dialysis is not something that you can get away from. It is something that you have to do night after night."

At the áras Rónáin community nursing centre, we meet MS sufferer Martin Joe Conneely and his daughter Agnes. She explains that Martin Joe needs to fly to the mainland for hospital appointments on a regular basis.

"They put him on the stretcher because his condition means he cannot travel sitting upright," she said.

"They take the seats out of the plane, fly him over and he is met by an ambulance on the other side," she added.

"I find it comfortable and have been using it for 40 years because I got the MS when I was quite young," Martin Joe told the Irish Independent.

They are worried that the helicopter will not be as flexible as the plane and cater for unique situations like Martin Joe's.

Airport staff are also concerned that the helicopters will be unable to fly coffins to and from the island, a striking reality among an ageing population.

At present, Aer Arann operates at least five flights per day to and from Inishmore. Three more in each direction link Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr with the mainland.

However, locals deem it to be flexible and extra flights are put on when required. On Thursday this week, there were 12 flights to Inis Mór alone.

All the users pay for the flights as you would with a bus and rail ticket.

In the post office on Inis Mór, Fionnuala Hernon's phone is hopping with enquiries from near and far about tickets to this weekend's All-Ireland hurling final.

"I have heard that there are concerns with carrying extra luggage on the helicopters and where does that leave the post because that can be quite heavy," she said.

"It is just absolutely vital to the island. Things are slightly more difficult living on an island and we expect that but this would be too much," she added.

Inis Mór co-op manager Cathy Ní Ghoill said that they have received very little communication or guidance on the matter.

"We have sent off a number of questions, many of which have been answered but we don't know about the spec or type of helicopter being used," she said.

"This is a PSO just like with Dublin Bus or Irish Rail. Our fear is because it will be more expensive to run a helicopter service, it will just fulfil the PSO service of one flight in the morning and one in the afternoon," she added.

"Eight seats out of Inis Mór is not enough because if you go out, you have to come back.

"It will be like the Galway tickets for the All-Ireland if people go on it."

Irish Independent

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