Tuesday 21 November 2017

State must help flight students, says mum

Trainees' relatives to mount picket at Dail as widowed mother says Government has a 'moral responsibility'

MAJOR BLOW: Affected
parents Martina Kealy and
Frank Kennedy in Dublin.
Photo: Gerry Mooney
MAJOR BLOW: Affected parents Martina Kealy and Frank Kennedy in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

John Drennan and Don LAVERY

Parents and relatives of Irish student pilots stranded in Florida plan to mount a picket at Leinster House, it emerged last night, as the widowed mother of one of them has claimed Transport Minister Leo Varadkar and the Government have "a moral responsibility" to ensure those involved can finish their training for a pilot's licence.

Ann Simpson, a self-employed Laois businesswoman, was referring to the failure to resolve the scandal where Irish trainee pilots, despite having paid fees of up to €86,000 to train in the Florida Institute of Technology, have had to return home in the wake of a dispute over funding.

Last week, Mr Varadkar said that while he, the department and the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) did not have any involvement in, or responsibility for, the contractual arrangements between the college and its students, he has agreed with the IAA to fund the flights home.

However, while Ann Simpson acknowledged "the goodwill gesture", she warned that "flights home cost €300 but these young men, however, are left with all this debt on their shoulders. Mr Varadkar or someone has to come up with solutions and help for them and their parents".

She said the Government, particularly, had a responsibility since "we were inclined to trust the course all the more because it appeared to be the case that the IAA and Enterprise Ireland were involved in the programme".

"It is unreal to think such a thing can happen and there is no one responsible," she said.

She also noted that "we know being a pilot is no longer glamorous but parents were just trying to create a future for their children. Now Cathal (her son) is €85,000 in debt with no qualifications".

Expressing concern that this would soon evolve into another case of "the news of the day" that will "soon disappear" she added: "I am a widow for the last 12 years. I have put three children through college with no help from grants. I have looked for nothing. I run a business and business is tough at the moment. Somebody was responsible and you know, you feel so angry. I've paid my taxes, done everything by the book and then the rug is pulled out from under you, and no one does anything."

Meanwhile, in Dublin yesterday, a group of two dozen parents and relatives of the trainee pilots met in the Aisling Hotel to plan a campaign aimed at seeing the pilots complete their training. They plan a picket on the Dail on Wednesday.

Frank Kennedy, whose son Niall, 26, arrived in Florida with a private pilot's licence and wants to complete his commercial pilot's licence, said all of the trainee pilots were "just shattered" by what had happened.

"As students, they want to complete their training and do what they set out to do, become the best pilots Ireland ever produced," he said.

Martina Kealy, whose son Ritchie, 20, is also in Florida, said they would have to come up with another $3,500 (€2,850) for him to complete his training.

The Fianna Fail senator Denis Donovan has also slammed the "ongoing tardy response" of the Minister for Transport. He was particularly critical of Mr Varadkar's failure to respond to a letter he sent to the minister on June 6, outlining the scale of the crisis. In it, Mr Donovan expressed concerns over the visa deadlines being faced by the students, the fate of students being asked to quit their accommodation and the failure of the IAA to provide the students caught in Florida with nothing more than "bits of information on a need-to-know basis".

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Donovan claimed that Mr Varadkar appeared to be "totally oblivious to the crisis".

However, a spokesperson for the department said: "Minister Varadkar and the Irish Aviation Authority have agreed to fund the flight costs of those self-financing students in Florida who have an existing contract with the Waterford college and who want to return."

They also noted that the minister was "giving consideration to a bonding or insurance scheme which would provide financial protection for students of flight training organisations".

In the meantime, they added: "The IAA is striving to ensure that the students affected will be able to avail of alternative training arrangements".

Sunday Independent

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