Monday 22 January 2018

Minister cancels decision to award Aran Islands air service to helicopter firm

A view over Inis Meáin, one of the Aran Islands
A view over Inis Meáin, one of the Aran Islands
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The controversial tender process for an air service linking the Aran Islands to the mainland has been scrapped.

Gaeltacht Affairs Minister Joe McHugh made the announcement tonight following weeks of controversy over the decision to declare a helicopter company the preferred bidder for the public service contract.

Islanders railed against the decision, which would have brought an end to Aer Arann Island's fixed wing service, which had been in operation for 44 years.

The company had placed 40 staff on protective notice and had been due to end its service of the islands next Tuesday.

Instead, it will be asked by the minister to maintain the service while a new tender process gets underway.

The decision to abandon the initial tender process comes as a huge embarrassment to the Mr McHugh and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which had selected a bid from Executive Helicopters.

That bid was based on flying out of Galway Airport in Carnmore, and would have cost the State €900,000-a-year.

However, critics argued the tender process was flawed as the future of Galway Airport is far from certain.

Neither the department nor the Office of Government Procurement contacted the airport's owners, Galway city and county councils, to ascertain whether the airport was actually available.

A feasibility study for the two councils this week recommended that the Carnmore site be used as a creative campus for the film sector.

Islanders were also far from happy about the prospect of flying to Carnmore on the east of Galway city, as the current service flies in and out of Inverin in Connemara, which is close to the Rossaveal ferry port.

In a statement, the department said Mr McHugh intended to advise the European Commission of the cancellation of the tender as soon as possible and to commence a fresh tender process for the air service.

"The minister indicated that the department will enter discussions with the existing service provider for the provision of an interim service with a view to enabling the re-tender to take place, while ensuring that there is no disruption in service," it said.

A spokesman for Executive Helicopters said it was "very disappointed with the decision of the department to cancel the tender."

He said the company, which provides services for tourists, private companies and semi-state bodies, would now be "reviewing its options".

Aer Arann Islands said it was not in a position to comment as it had yet to hear from the department.

When difficulties surrounding the tender first came to light last month, Mr McHugh had sought to extend Aer Arann Islands' current contract for a further four months to allow time for the issue to be sorted out.

However, this was rejected by the airline and it instituted judicial review proceedings in the High Court earlier this week.

Prior to last night's decision, the airline has stopped taking bookings for beyond next Tuesday, when its contract was due to cease.

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