John persuades Failte Ireland to allow council pitch
Deputy John Deasy has reached agreement with Failte Ireland to allow Waterford City and County Council to make a formal presentation — including a full business case — as to why Waterford’s coastline should be included in the Wild Atlantic Way.
The Fine Gael TD held separate meetings in Dublin last week with Failte Ireland chief executive, Shaun Quinn, and CEO of the combined Waterford council, Michael Walsh.
“I’ve been dealing with this for a couple of months now,” Mr Deasy said. “I proposed to Mr Quinn that the local authority be given an opportunity to make a proper pitch as to why Waterford, being on the Atlantic seaboard, should be included in this multi-million euro tourism promotion.
“Michael Walsh has agreed to put the necessary process in train and the next step is to formulate a comprehensive presentation. It will take a few weeks to put together the business plan, which is a critical component of this.
“While there’s no guarantee Waterford’s submission will be successful, at the very least the council will have the chance to make a detailed case for inclusion. It’s up to the officials now to make the best case possible.”
Deputy Deasy stressed that “the inclusion of Waterford will have to make sense in terms of the considerable marketing plan that’s already underway. The concern already raised is that it might dilute the overall concept.”
“We have to be realistic. There are major issues to be overcome if Waterford is to be included. The most obvious problem is that it would have to comprise East Cork’s coastline as well.”
He believes one big advantage Waterford has is the location of the regional airport, which would be an ideal starting point to the tourist route for visitors from the UK and Europe.
“Having this county’s spectacular 147km of coastline as part of the Wild Atlantic Way would also help the marketing of the airport a great deal. It’s very well located and I presume the airport’s access potential will be a key selling point in the presentation the Waterford council makes to Bord Failte.”
Deputy John Deasy has told the Dáil of a 74% year-on-year increase in passenger numbers at Waterford Airport up to the end of May.
The Fine Gael TD acknowledged “the past few years have been a struggle for everyone involved, but it is fair to say that the work and patience displayed by everyone involved is paying off.”
Mr Deasy said: “I hope the figures supplied to me in respect of the first five months of this year represent a turning point. They go to show that a focused regional airport investment strategy can work and makes smart business sense.”
Flybe operates two commercial routes from Waterford — Birmingham and Manchester. Together they showed a 74% increase in passenger traffic in the first five months of this year compared with the same period in 2013, amounting to more than 12,000 individual inbound and outbound flights.
“For the life of me, I could never understand why barely a penny was invested in Waterford Airport in the years when we had money to spend on infrastructure. There were plenty of announcements by sitting ministers, but nothing happened.”
Deputy Deasy attributed this continuing “substantial increase” in passenger loads — “albeit from a very small base” — to “good marketing, an uplift in the UK economy and a determination on the part of the Minister, the Department, airport management and everyone involved to make this work.
“It is working. Slowly but surely, Waterford is proving business can be found if an airport sticks at it.”
However, he said, “This is not to say that there are no unresolved issues. Money is being raised on the ground to supplement a Government investment that I hope will continue.
“The planning process for the runway extension is nearing completion and an arbitration process will proceed within the coming months, all of which should amount to an additional 200–250m of runway.”
Also, “Talks are continuing with commercial operators regarding the restoration of the Waterford-London route” — and the verified success of the current UK services should assist with this, he said.
While the region’s local authorities are “making the airport a priority and stepping up their involvement” as well, Deputy Deasy cited the Government’s “imagination to see the possibilities and to invest in critical infrastructure when times are tough” as “the key factor.”
By contrast, while he was “not going to bash” the previous administration, “for the life of me, I could never understand why barely a penny was invested in Waterford Regional Airport in the years when we had money to spend on infrastructure. There were plenty of announcements by sitting ministers, but nothing happened.”
Deputy Deasy agreed that “When a recession bites it is even more important that a government spends its money wisely.” But the passenger growth achieved this year “demonstrates that additional capital and operational funding for Waterford and the other regional airports is smart business and is a positive for the country's economy as a whole.”
Deputy John Deasy says the Government’s decision to release funding to allow for a limited but vital runway extension at Waterford Airport is a “very significant” breakthrough.
Having been working to secure this investment for a number of months, dealing directly with Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, the Waterford Fine Gael TD had argued that a relatively modest outlay by the state could yield major benefits for the region’s economy.
The same capital expenditure grant of €405,000 was originally approved in late 2011 only to be frozen after Aer Arann’s decision to pull out of Waterford from January this year. Following a meeting with the airport board late last month, the Minister – despite the instability within the aviation industry – has now given Waterford Co Council the go-ahead to CPO the required 18 acres of land.
With the agreement being dependent on a contribution from a number of companies, along with local authorities, in the region, “In committing this funding I think the Department feels relatively happy with the private sector involvement in meeting the balance of the project cost, including laying the new stretch of runway,” Deputy Deasy says.
“There’s also an acknowledgement that the people who have worked at Waterford Airport for the past four years have used every cent to try to pave the way for additional expansion to bring in different kinds of jet aircraft, including small jets, and to connect to London in particular.”
“Psychologically it’s very important that we move to ensure that the airport is viable going into the next five or 10 years at the very least."
The additional lands are also needed to comply with international safety standards, including the provision of a runway end safety area. The 150m runway extension itself will, Deputy Deasy expects, “greatly improve the prospects of attracting a carrier to operate the Waterford–Luton service.”
Applauding the airport’s proactive approach despite the challenges it has faced in recent times, Mr Deasy added: “I don’t think there’s anyone in Waterford or the South East who doesn’t realise how critical this piece of infrastructure is for the region, for the city, for the county – an area that is suffering very badly.
“Psychologically it’s very important that we move to ensure that the airport is viable going into the next five or 10 years at the very least. Direct air access to our biggest trading partner is extremely important, and Waterford Airport supports considerable direct and indirect employment – not least in terms of tourism, which accounted for over half the inbound traffic from the Luton route.”
Now, after what’s been a lengthy process of negotiation, Deputy Deasy hopes things can progress swiftly, with a CPO operative and the contracts already agreed. Though the transfer of lands to the Airport will require a Section 183 Resolution by Co Councillors, officials believe this will not be a problem and that work can commence within a matter of months.
The Oireachtas committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has been told by Government TD John Deasy that flexibility must be found within transport budgets to finally fund an extension of the runway at Waterford Airport.
During a discussion of the South-East Economic Development Strategy Report, the Waterford Deputy stressed “It is a critical time now for the airport” – describing the fact that its manager Graham Doyle is leaving to become an assistant secretary in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as “significant” and “bad news, in my opinion.”
He observed that the airport has “three options”, ranging in cost from €1.25 million to €7m, to the €10m it would cost to land 737s. “Realistically” we are talking about the cheapest, Mr Deasy said, equating it to “the cost of a three-bedroom semi-detached house in parts of this city a few years ago. It is not a lot of money.
“As far as the Department is concerned, the case is being made, successfully, that it is worth investing in the airport.” To bring in jet aircraft and attract a London carrier, “The people who have worked there for the past four years have used every penny to try to lay the ground at the airport for additional expansion at the north and south ends of the runway.”
Mr Deasy added, “I am having a discussion on the matter with the Minister… If we are all of the opinion that the airport is a key piece of infrastructure then we must examine the entirety of the transport budget and ask ourselves one question, namely, whether we are prioritising what we should prioritise?
“In that context, the answer is ‘No’.… My point is that budgets within the Department are not flexible enough,” he said.
Deputy Deasy insisted: “We have to have an urgent discussion within the Department,” suggesting, for example, that “It may not be wise for us to continue spending millions of euro on something like Smarter Travel when a vital piece of infrastructure for the southeast is not being funded sufficiently, and it does not involve a lot of money.”
The committee heard from, among others, Waterford City Manager Michael Walsh, Waterford Chamber President Nora Widger, and Senan Cooke of Dunhill Rural Enterprises. About the strategy, which is nearing completion, Mr Deasy thanked Senator David Cullinane “for his work on putting all of this together. It is valuable.”
>> For the transcript of the full committee discussion, click here (pages 3-12)
Deputy John Deasy says Waterford Airport’s importance as a Search and Rescue (SAR) base has been underlined by call-out figures over the past three years — particularly night-time helicopter missions.
The Fine Gael TD cited the number of emergencies the crew has been tasked to over the 2010–2012 period as clear evidence of the facility’s critical presence on the Southeast and South coast. It was the second busiest base after Shannon.
It’s three years since a cabinet proposal to limit and reduce the Irish Coast Guard 24-hour SAR operation at Waterford to daylight hours only, resulted in a public outcry — forcing a row-back by the then Minister.
The case for maintaining round-the-clock cover at Waterford has been cemented since the aborted move to cut back the helicopter service to a 12-hour one was aired in March 2010.
The value of the Killowen facility was confirmed in figures gleaned from the Department of Transport in reply to a recent Dáil question by Mr Deasy (see tables below).
“The recommendation made three years ago was based on a very low 2008 call-out rate for the Waterford helicopter. It’s clear now that that figure was an aberration. The call-out statistics since have shown that had cover been curtailed it would have been a mistake — and it would have probably cost lives,” Mr Deasy says.
He noted that call-outs have been fairly evenly spread between the four SAR bases around the coastline, “indicating that Waterford as a location, like the others, has been pretty much spot on”, covering an area stretching from south Wicklow through to Glandore and 50 miles southwards.
The service has been run on a 24/7 basis since 2002, responding to well over 1,000 taskings and saving many lives. Indeed, while filming for the RTÉ series ‘Rescue 117’ in 2010, the Waterford crew conducted 18 separate rescue missions on camera.
Mr Deasy concluded: “The numbers prove a 24/7 emergency response from Waterford is essential and that the SAR helicopter must remain at the regional airport.”