May 8th, 2008 - Pat Breen

I wish to raise on the Adjournment Debate as a matter of urgency the exclusion of the Air Navigation Transport Pre Clearance Bill from the Governments Legislation Programme for the Summer Session 2008, the urgent need for the Transport Minister to have the heads of this Bill approved by Government as the delay in proceeding with this project is placing Shannon Airport at a serious disadvantage

 Deputy Pat Breen: I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, on his appointment.  However, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey was in the House earlier to answer oral questions and I had expected he would remain for this transport-related question on the Adjournment, which pertains to a highly important issue facing Shannon Airport.  It is typical of the Minister for Transport to run away.  He ran away from the Heathrow service issue when it arose last September and he has run away this afternoon.  He should have spared five minutes for Shannon Airport.  Things do not really change and this is more of the same.

  I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter in the House.  When the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Martin Cullen, signed the EU-US open skies agreement, he promised that the introduction of open skies would herald the beginning of a new era of opportunities for Irish airports, including Shannon, to exploit the US aviation market.  He promised that pre-immigration clearance would be up and running at an early date and would give Shannon Airport an economic advantage.  He also stated he was putting the final touches on a major tourism and economic plan for the Shannon region to cushion the blow.  However, the ink was hardly dry on the agreement when the promises made to Shannon Airport evaporated one by one.  The last Aer Lingus flight took off from the tarmac at Shannon for Heathrow on 13 January last with the region’s slots on board.  A total of €20 million was erased from the tourism and economic plan without objection and now the unique advantage possessed by Shannon in respect of its extension to its US Customs and Border Protection facility is being whittled away by a lacklustre Government that is showing no urgency in introducing legislation to give effect to this development at Shannon Airport.

  The Government’s legislative programme for summer 2008 provides no indication of when the proposed air navigation and transport pre-clearance Bill will be published.  I urge the Minister of State to put pressure on his colleague, the Minister for Transport, to bring forward this legislation.  I have raised this issue a number of times and have been informed that negotiations were ongoing. It seems extraordinary therefore, that while there have been many high profile visits to the US in recent months by the former Taoiseach, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Transport, none of them bothered to discuss this matter with their US counterparts.

  When I had the opportunity to meet the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, last November in Dublin, I raised this issue with him.  He was highly supportive of this project and my understanding is that while the US authorities are behind this development, the Irish Government and Department of Transport are dragging their heels in this respect.

  Shannon Airport can only avail of opportunities in an open skies environment if it is in a position to exploit its advantages.  The airport authority is striving to secure year-round transatlantic services and has introduced a three-year winter transatlantic incentive scheme.  The airport also faces concerns following Ryanair’s threat issued this week that while an agreement is in place with Shannon Airport until 2010, there are no guarantees beyond this date.

Deputy Barry Andrews: Response: The Minister for Transport does not accept that there is any undue delay in legislating for pre-clearance at Shannon Airport. Negotiations with the United States need to be concluded before legislation providing for such a facility can be drafted. Under the provisions of the Air Navigation and Transport (Pre-Inspection) Act 1986, Ireland has an agreement with the United States whereby all US-bound passengers departing from Shannon and Dublin airports are eligible for pre-inspection by the US authorities before departure.

Pre-inspection is the procedure whereby personnel from the US customs and border protection body, which is a division of the US Department of Homeland Security, carry out those inspections of passengers and aircraft crew that are required under US immigration and public health laws and regulations for entry to that country. Under the 1986 Act, the procedures are confined to immigration clearance only — they do not include inspections that are required under other US laws and regulations, such as agriculture and customs inspections. Pre-clearance is the process whereby all inspection and clearance requirements under US law for passengers arriving into the US are met at the departure airport. Passengers arriving at US airports are then processed without any further official contact. On arrival at the US airport, they have a status similar to that of passengers arriving from other US airports.

There would be benefits if pre-clearance facilities were introduced in Ireland. Passengers would be processed through all US entry procedures before they travel, knowing that when they arrive at their destination airport in the US they will enjoy an uninterrupted passage. Airlines would be able to use the less congested domestic airports or domestic terminals of international airports on arrival in the US. If pre-clearance facilities were available, Shannon Airport Authority would be able to market Shannon Airport as a hub for US-bound flights. Any attempt to move to a pre-clearance regime will require the negotiation of a pre-clearance agreement with the US. That agreement would have to be incorporated into Irish domestic law to enable pre-clearance operations to take place on Irish soil.

The proposals of the US authorities for the provision of pre-clearance facilities at Dublin and Shannon airports were submitted to the Department of Transport in late December 2007. Formal negotiations on the proposals with the US authorities commenced in January of this year. During his visit to Washington last week, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, met the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Mr. Michael Chertoff, to discuss progress on the negotiations. While the content of the discussions must remain confidential, the Minister is looking forward to making good progress with the US authorities. As the matter is under negotiation, it is too early to say when the necessary intergovernmental agreement will be finalised and legislation will be brought before the Oireachtas. However, subject to Government approval, the Minister for Transport is targetting the end of year for the agreement and the legislation to be in place.