Improved Direct International Air Services are Required to Support Enterprise and Tourism Development in Western Region

Support for Air Routes to and from Regional Airports in Western Region Should Continue – WDC.

The Western Region needs better international air connections. Without them, the region’s companies and tourism industry are at a competitive disadvantage. That’s according to the Western Development Commission’s (WDC) latest Policy Briefing ‘Air Access and the Western Region’.

Deirdre Frost, Policy Analyst at the WDC says: “Instead of policies which funnel international air access through the State airports, and in particular through Dublin Airport, direct international air access to and from the Western Region’s ‘regional’ airports needs to be maximised to drive enterprise and tourism, as well as making the most of this infrastructure.”

State airports are regarded as the most important air access points, however most of counties Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal and parts of Roscommon and Galway are more than two hours journey from any of the State airports. This includes key economic centres in the West and North West – the NSS gateways of Letterkenny and Sligo and the twinned hubs of Castlebar and Ballina. Other gateways and hubs including Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Dundalk, Drogheda and Ennis are all within an hour’s drive or less of a State airport.

The WDC says that ‘regional’ airports, outside of State ownership, are important international access points serving local and regional demand and that their role should not just be expressed in terms of supporting links to and from State airports. “The important role of ‘regional’ airports in providing direct international linkages, supporting balanced regional development and stimulating economic growth should be fully recognised,” Ms Frost said.

“The European Commission recognises the role that regional airports play in integrating peripheral parts of Europe and, in support of this, permits state aid for route development from small regional airports. The WDC believes that these EU aid guidelines should be examined to determine how they might support direct international air access from Western Region airports,” she added.

Tourism is a key employer in the Western Region with nearly 24,000 people working in accommodation and food service in 2010. However the sector has been in decline and the WDC notes that relatively poor direct international air access is a factor in this, for the North West and parts of the West. The growth in popularity of ‘short-break’ tourism, coupled with the inaccessibility of the Western Region compared with other regions, has made it difficult to compete. The North West’s share of national tourism revenue fell from 5.7% in 2003 to 4.5% in 2009, while the West’s fell from 13.5% to 12.0%.

The potential of improved air access in driving tourism growth is clear from the case of Dublin where the significant increase in passenger numbers through Dublin Airport between 2003 and 2008 (+48.2%) was reflected in an increase in overseas visits to the Dublin region (+25%). Indeed in a European context Dublin is the only region in Ireland with air accessibility above the EU average, with the Western Region scoring well below the EU average.

Commenting on the Government’s recent announcement [January 2011] that it will no longer fund PSO (Public Service Obligation) routes to/from Dublin with Sligo, Ireland West Airport Knock and Galway airports, the WDC says: “We believe that, where EU guidelines allow, PSO air links to Dublin should continue. EU guidelines allow PSOs where surface journey times are greater than three hours. Many parts of the Western Region could be seen as remote or ‘inaccessible’ to foreign investors and tourists if a situation develops where there is no means to access them from Dublin in less than three hours.”

Following this decision, after July 2011, just one PSO air route in the region (Donegal – Dublin) will continue to receive funding from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

In addition to ending support for these PSO routes, the Department has also recommended a curtailment of operational and capital supports to Sligo and Galway airports. It acknowledges that these airports may close to commercial traffic as a consequence. Any such closures would have negative consequences for these areas and the Western Region’s economic recovery according to the WDC.

“Transport infrastructure is one of the most important factors in stimulating economic growth – enabling more efficient movement of goods, people and services. Given the continued inaccessibility of large parts of the Western Region, government policy must fully recognise the international access role of ‘regional’ airports. It’s also critical that the use of these key pieces of regional infrastructure, which have received significant public investment, be maximised for the benefit of the region and the country,” concluded Ms Frost.

Ends

For further information please contact:

Deirdre Frost, Western Development Commission, 086 605 3317
or
Angela Bane, Bane Mullarkey, 087 286 5217

Note on WDC Policy Briefings:

This policy briefing ‘Air Access and the Western Region: A Regional Perspective’, is the third in a series of WDC Policy Briefings to highlight and provide discussion and analysis of key regional policy issues.

The WDC will be publishing further policy briefings throughout 2011 on a range of critical policy issues.

The full report may be accessed on http://www.wdc.ie/publications/reports-and-papers/reports-2011/