Aer Arann contract to islands extended until early next year
Residents on the Aran Islands remain "annoyed and distressed" about their air transport services, despite the Government confirming the proposed takeover by a helicopter firm will not happen until next year.
The Department of the Gaeltacht said it will be "engaging with the existing service provider" with a view to extending the existing contract until February 1, 2016.
Junior Minister Joe McHugh last month said the State's air service contract for the islands off the coast of Co Galway had been won by Executive Helicopters Limited, after a public tendering process.
Residents on the three Aran islands - Inis Mór, Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin - have strongly opposed the change in the air service which links them to the mainland.
Mr McHugh's department issued a statement yesterday, which said that the "voluntary standstill period of 14 days" in relation to awarding the contract, which was initially due to expire on September 9, had been extended to November 16 on foot of legal advice.
It said this was done "with a view to obtaining clarification on the availability of Galway Airport" for the duration of the four-year contract, which was tendered for and due to start on October 1 this year.
"On this basis, they will now engage with the existing service provider - Aer Arann - to extend their contract until February 1, 2016.
"Minister of State McHugh will be maintaining his contacts with the island communities to ensure that there is a clear line of communication with them as the process moves forward," the statement read.
Many of the residents' concerns lie around the fact that the Public Service Obligation (PSO) contract advertisement said it would allow the service provider use of both Inverin and Galway airports.
The Inverin airbase, which is currently used, is just 8km from the ferry port of Rossaveal and is convenient for islanders in terms of accessing cars. However, Galway Airport is 52km away from the ferry to the islands.
The air service has been in operation since 1970 and was founded by Colm Hernon.
His son, Michael Hernon, has been operating the bus service which transports the islanders to and from the airbase for 45 years. He said the latest decision has the community in Inis Mór "very annoyed and very distressed".
"We welcome the announcement because it gives an extension to Aer Arann to provide the services. But it still doesn't solve the problem for us," he said.
He said an emergency meeting was due to be held on the island last night.
"It is not going to solve our problem. They are forcing the tender that we don't want on us. My personal belief is that it shouldn't be extended. It's just being postponed," he added.
He said the locals are concerned that the trusted aircraft is being replaced by a helicopter and fear it will not fulfil their needs.
"The service we are going to get is not suitable for the island. It's as simple as that. We don't want it from Galway and we don't want a helicopter," he added.
A spokesperson for Executive Helicopters Ltd said they are currently unable to comment.