Helicopter contract chaos could leave islanders with no service in two weeks
The Government's plan to award the public service air contract for flights into and out of the Aran Islands to a helicopter company is on the verge of unravelling.
Mounting political opposition and growing uncertainty over the availability of Galway Airport has cast serious doubt on the proposed move.
The chaos surrounding the €900,000-a-year deal means islanders could be left without any air service in a fortnight's time.
Locals have strongly opposed the decision to nominate East Galway-based firm Executive Helicopters as preferred bidder for the public service contract, replacing Aer Arann Islands, which has run the service for 44 years.
But apart from local opposition, the key stumbling block is the whether or not Galway Airport in Carnmore will be available to the helicopter firm for landings on the mainland.
A statement issued to the Irish Independent by one of the co-owners of the airport, Galway County Council, has cast serious doubt on its availability.
Although the current contract for the Aran Islands service runs out in just two weeks' time, the council said there had been "no discussions to date" regarding the use of the airport to provide an air service to the Aran Islands.
It said the current lessee of the airport had only recently requested a meeting with the chief executives of the county council and Galway City Council, which is the other co-owner.
The county council said that meeting would take place some time "in the coming weeks".
Meanwhile, a feasibility report prepared for both councils by Future Analytics Ltd on the future use of the airport has yet to be delivered and is set to be the subject of intense debate.
The current airport lease expires at the end of the year and although it will not be sold, it is not clear if it will remain in use as an airport.
"The length of the process will be determined by the issues and the discussion and may take some time," said the county council statement.
Councillors in the city council have already refused to give officials a mandate to facilitate Executive Helicopters' use of the airport.
They passed a motion earlier this week calling for Gaeltacht Affairs Minister Joe McHugh not to sign the contract with the helicopter firm.
Aer Arann Island's contract runs out on September 30 and it has shown no willingness to accede to a request from the department to extend this by four months while the current difficulties are ironed out, leaving the very real prospect that there will be no air service come October 1.
The department said it was awaiting a response from Aer Arann Islands on this. However, sources said there would be no agreement to extend, and that the operator will be seeking a judicial review of the decision to award the contract to Executive Helicopters.
It is unclear whether the department has a contingency plan in place should there be no agreement.
A spokesman said: "Clearly, this question is hypothetical. In such an eventuality, the Department will be considering all available options."
Objections and lack of certainty over airport plunge Aran Islands air service plan into chaos
August 26: Gaeltacht Affairs Minister Joe McHugh announces that the preferred tenderer for the Aran Islands air service contract is Executive Helicopters Limited. The four-year contract is to be signed after September 9 following a mandatory standstill period.
September 1: Islanders meet with Mr McHugh to voice concerns. Chief among these is the proposed use of Galway Airport in Carnmore as a landing base. The current service operated by Aer Arann Islands flies in to Inveran, 8km from the Ros a' Mhíl ferry port also used by islanders. In comparison, Carnmore is some 52km from Ros a' Mhíl.
September 10: After doubts emerge over the availability of Galway Airport, Mr McHugh announces the standstill period has been extended to November 16 while clarification is sought.
Aer Arann Islands, whose contract ends on September 30, is asked to continue providing the service for another four months, but does not indicate if it will.
September 16: Galway County Council signals it could be some time before the future of the airport is known, casting serious doubt over the air service contract.