Aran islanders could be left without a vital air link to the mainland from next month as the row over the State contract to provide the service escalated this weekend.
The airline that has provided the service for 45 years, Aer Arann Islands, has stopped taking bookings for flights on and off the islands after September 30, leaving local people stranded.
The airline lost out on the tender last month to a helicopter company based in Galway city, which was due to take over the service on October 1 flying from Galway Airport, to huge local opposition.
It emerged last week that the airport may not be available and the Department of the Gaeltacht could not sign off on the contract with Executive Helicopters. The department announced last week that it was extending the contract with Aer Arann Islands for six months until it “clarified” that the airport was available.
However, it is understood that the airline has so far not agreed to sign the contract, leaving locals stranded.
The “debacle” has further angered islanders, who launched a furious protest at the loss of the fixed wing plane.
Tarlach de Blacam, who runs an international knitwear business from Inis Meain, said yesterday: “Aer Arann Islands are not taking any bookings from us after September 30, even though the minister announced an extension of the service while he clarifies the situation with Executive Helicopters. Executive Helicopters are unable to confirm the availability of the airport, as tendered. So it looks like all air service will cease indefinitely from the end of the month.”
He said the disruption to his business would be “massive”. “The inefficiency of it is mind boggling. It is a complete debacle at this stage.”
Eamon O Cuiv, the Fianna Fail TD for Galway West, said there was a real possibility that islanders could be cut off from the mainland in 18 days.
“We are now in serious danger of winding up with no service at all on October 1,” he said. “What the minister should do is cancel the whole tender process, revamp it and start again.”
Had he done that, he said, Aer Arann would still have been in with a shout of the contract and may have agreed to continue to provide the service in the interim.
“Unfortunately this minister got into a hole and he started digging furiously, and got himself deeper and deeper into the hole, instead of doing what you are supposed to when you are a hole . . . you stop digging.”
The routes to Inis Mor, Inis Oirr and Inis Meain were operated by Aer Arann Islands airline for 45 years.
The Department for the Environment, Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs reviewed the service last year and put a four-year contract out to tender. Executive Helicopters, a firm based in Galway City, won the contract.
The announcement angered islanders, who said they had not been consulted.
Concerned about the safety and reliability of a helicopter service over choppy seas, particularly during the winter months, local people protested vigorously.
Executive Helicopters was expected to embark on the new contract from October 1 operating from Galway Airport, outside the city. But last week it emerged that Galway Airport may not be available from December, which Executive Helicopter has to clarify.
The firm promised to provide at least two return flights a day to the islands from Galway city, while at present Aer Arann Islands provides three from an airport that is only a few kilometres from the ferry. Some 40 jobs are expected to be lost at the Aer Arann Islands airline, meanwhile. The government has been reviewing the air services in the region.
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