Breen demands Government Action on behalf of the Aer Lingus Workers at Shannon Airport

October 10th, 2008 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me the opportunity to raise this highly important matter in the House.  It was a sad day at Shannon Airport last Monday when the announcement filtered through to Aer Lingus staff there.  Nearly all of the 300 Aer Lingus staff employed at Shannon are to be written off by a single stroke of a pen.  The jobs of all check-in staff, baggage handlers and cargo staff are to be outsourced to lower-paid workers.  The cabin crew base is to be abolished and American crews will be brought in to do the cabin crews’ jobs.  This is an appalling way for a company to treat staff that have given such dedicated service and have shown such great loyalty to the airline for many years.  Although many of the staff involved chose to stay with the airline to help it to return to profitability, this is the thanks they have received.  Many of them have huge mortgages, young families and little prospect of finding alternative employment in an aviation business which, like other sectors of the economy, is experiencing a serious decline.

  The Aer Lingus workers at Shannon are the sacrificial lambs who are bearing the brunt of the Government’s failure to act last year to secure the Shannon to Heathrow service.  Shannon bore the brunt of the crisis arising from the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001.  Every time Aer Lingus gets ‘flu, unfortunately Shannon appears to get pneumonia.  Last year, Aer Lingus walked away from the profitable Shannon to Heathrow route that carried 360,000 people and opened a new base in Belfast.  According to my verifiable analysis of its load factors, Belfast‘s average load factor was only 45% for the first five months of this year, compared to the average load factor of 70% out of Shannon.  We were told this was being done for sound commercial reasons.  Although we now know differently, no one is to be held to account.

  

  Were these proposals to be implemented, it would be the beginning of the end of the green uniform at Shannon.  I have travelled with Aer Lingus many times and have enjoyed its hospitality and friendliness.  As for the check-in, boarding, baggage handling, ramp, maintenance and cargo staff, as well as the cabin crew, the green uniform and the céad míle fáilte is what they are all about and is what they do best.  They are great ambassadors for Irish tourism and many American tourists choose to fly with Aer Lingus to experience the céad míle fáilte and a real sense of Irishness.  I fear that wiping out one of its greatest assets, namely, its staff, will do irreversible damage to the airline’s brand name.

 

Aer Lingus, with the support of the Government, has for several years operated a policy of consolidating its business outside of Shannon Airport. 

 

Following the Irish Ferries debacle, the Protection of Employment (Exceptional Collective Redundancies and Related Matters) Act was passed in the Oireachtas.  Is this Aer Lingus proposal any different from what happened to Irish Ferries?

 

 Another part of the current Aer Lingus proposal is to reduce the number of long-haul aircraft from nine to eight.  The objective of Aer Lingus in this respect is to walk away completely from Shannon.  It might commit to service to the airport for the next summer but beyond that I have significant apprehensions about its plans.  There are 65 US companies based in the region, employing 11,000 people, and these firms are dependent on daily and direct US services. If we are to sustain those companies and maintain some level of competitiveness in the region, it is essential we have direct daily services.

 

 Last year this Government let us down again on Shannon.  It gave its blessing to Aer Lingus to axe the Shannon-Heathrow route and ignored pleas from all sectors of business, tourism and trade unions in the region to intervene.  Those sectors are still reeling from last year’s decision and only this week the Woodstock Hotel, a landmark, closed in Ennis with the loss of 40 jobs as a result of the loss of Heathrow connectivity.

 

 I see the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, is present along with the Minister of State.  They came into the House last year and voted for that.  Will the Government turn its back on Aer Lingus workers in Shannon for the second time in a year?

 

  I appeal to the Minister to intervene.  The Government holds a 25% shareholding in Aer Lingus for days like this.  All avenues must be explored to resolve this crisis.  While the Government continues to claim Aer Lingus is a private commercial company, it has Government-appointed directors sitting on the board.  Did they support this decision?  Does the Government support the decision to replace existing staff with other workers, either lower paid or from some other country?  Will the Government impress on Aer Lingus management the importance of sitting down with its staff to find alternatives to these draconian measures?  

 Aer Lingus and Shannon Airport have a proud tradition and a wonderful history in aviation.  Little did we think as we approached the 30th anniversary of the departure of Pope John Paul II to the US from Shannon in September 1979 on the Aer Lingus flagship, the St. Patrick, that this was the final chapters in the airline’s close association with Shannon.

 

I appeal to the Minister to intervene and ensure the proud association of Aer Lingus and Shannon Airport continues, and that Aer Lingus workers at Shannon continue to fly the green flag.

 

   Deputy Barry Andrews: I thank Deputy Breen for raising this matter on the Adjournment.  The Deputy will be aware that commercial decisions of Aer Lingus are a matter for the board and management of the company and it is not open to the Government to intervene.  Aer Lingus is an independent company and must make decisions on a commercial basis.  It is understood that the costs savings are necessary so that the airline can remain competitive.  These measures, we understand, will strengthen the long-term viability of transatlantic services at Shannon Airport.

  The Government regrets the announcement by Aer Lingus of its intention to outsource part of its operations outside Ireland, with a view to reducing costs and maintaining its ability to compete in what we all accept is a very challenging aviation market.  Any potential loss of jobs is regrettable more so in the present international economic position.

  It is very much in Ireland‘s interest that Aer Lingus maintains its role as a major provider of air services to and from Ireland.  The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is keenly aware of the human considerations at issue here.  The industrial relations machinery of the State is available to provide any necessary assistance in resolving challenges faced by the management and employees of the company.  It is encouraging to note that SIPTU has agreed to enter into a process with the Labour Relations Commission, and in the light of the wider global economic circumstances the Minister urges all sides to take a sensible approach in dealing with the cost-saving proposals.

  The State has given a mandate to its three representatives on the board relating to wider Government, aviation or regional development policies but this mandate is subject to the overriding obligations of directors pursuant to company law to uphold their fiduciary duties and protect the interests of all shareholders.  From an Irish economy perspective the overarching priority for aviation is that Ireland maintains the highest possible level of connectivity between Ireland and key business and tourism markets.  This is all the more important in times of global economic turbulence.  The problems facing the international aviation industry are well known and we have seen recent business failures of established airlines such as XL and Zoom and some well-known flag carrier European airlines are experiencing severe difficulty.

  The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is aware that the Shannon Airport Authority has been having discussions with Aer Lingus to identify costs savings with a view to bolstering the prospects of future development of its transatlantic services.  However, in framing any proposals to support Aer Lingus transatlantic services, the airport authority must ensure that such assistance is provided on a commercial basis and is also made available to other airlines.