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'It will wither on the vine': Concern over future of Waterford Airport as government pulls emergency funding

A further €5m in Government investment has also been placed in doubt.

THE DEPARTMENT OF Transport is pulling annual emergency payments to Waterford Airport, placing the future of the company in doubt.

It said the payments “cannot be continued” in light of the “radically changed outlook” caused by Covid-19. It also raised doubts over a promised €5m funding for a runway extension granted in 2019, owing to the pandemic and a lack of commercial flights at the airport.

The emergency payments, totalling €1.5m over three years, were provided between 2018 to 2020, however, no money has been paid out for the current year.

The stance arose from parliamentary questions asked by Waterford TD David Cullinane, who was told by the Minister of State for Transport Hildegard Naughton that the pandemic will now affect future spending on the airport, particularly as it has lacked commercial flights since 2016.

Earlier this week the continuing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on aviation was laid bare by Aer Lingus, with the company losing more than €1m a day still. Its chief executive told the Oireachtas on Tuesday that its Irish operations will be smaller “for some time to come”, having also closed one of its regional bases at Shannon Airport.

Addressing questions by Mr Cullinane, Ms Naughton said that in the absence of flights Waterford Airport “fails to meet the connectivity objective” set out by Government policy on regional airports.

“While some operational payments to Waterford airport were made on an exceptional basis between 2018 and 2020 in anticipation of the return of scheduled services, the radically changed outlook for the return of such services means that such payments cannot be continued and Waterford Airport have been advised of this position.”

The payments were to ensure the continuation of Search and Rescue services at the airport as well as covering general aviation services while the 900m runway extension was being constructed.

A decision on this is expected in the coming weeks from An Bord Pleanála with the hope being that, if granted, it would attract commercial carriers for the airport.

Ms Naughton confirmed that “any renewal of a commitment” to provide funds of €5m will have to take into account “changed circumstances” arising from delays to the project, along with the impacts of Covid on the aviation market and wider economy.

Costing €12m in total, the other monies for the runway extension are to be provided by a local consortium of regional companies combined with local councils in Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny.

However the private sector funding for the runway extension has been in doubt as talks have stalled, and Sinn Féin TD Mr Cullinane said the ball is now in the court of these investors and the local authorities.

“We either take the leap now or we don’t. It’s crunch time and the other funders need to decide whether they want to press ahead with Waterford Airport, and it needs to be decided whether the airport can be sustainable and viable.”

Without the State’s emergency payments, the company would also “wither on the vine”, Mr Cullinane added.

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“Nobody wants to see the airport go, but a decision needs to be made and timelines need to be outlined by those investors.”

The news was greeted with disappointment by Waterford City and County Council, whose chief executive sits on the board of the airport.

A council spokeswoman said: “While Waterford Council is disappointed with the news about the withdrawal of support for maintenance, we remain committed to the development of the airport and will work with the board of Waterford Airport and the Department of Transport to deliver the maximum benefit for Waterford and the South East region.”

Waterford Airport did not respond when contacted.

A spokesman for Wexford County Council said it is deeply aware of the significance of Waterford Airport in the context of the economic development of the South East.

He added that while the council does not have a formal funding commitment to the runway extension, it is prepared to cooperate with the other neighbouring councils to “consider providing an element of the match funding required” along with government funding and private sector investment.

 

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