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Airport boss calls for pre-flight testing

October 11th, 2020 11:50 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

The adoption by the Irish government of a ‘standard, accurate, rapid, low cost’ screening method for Irish air travel could start the process of recovery for Irish aviation and tourism, says Cork Airport boss Niall MacCarthy.

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The managing director of Cork Airport has said that pre-flight testing is essential if we are going to save ‘tens of thousands’ of jobs in the sector.

Cork Airport has seen its passenger numbers collapse since March and recent threats from Ryanair to close its bases in Cork and Shannon if the government doesn’t expand its ‘green list’ of countries for safe travel.

Cork Airport MD Niall MacCarthy told The Southern Star this week that the world is likely to be living with the pandemic ‘for the next two years at least’ while vaccine trials continue. 

‘Hopefully, a successful vaccine will be found early next year and fully rolled out on a planned, phased basis to enable Irish and European society to return to some sense of normality. In the meantime, we have to learn to co-exist with the virus and keep people in employment whilst staying safe,’ he said. 

He added: ‘Our economy and people can’t stay cut off from the rest of the world for that period.’

Mr MacCarthy added that quarantines ‘don’t work in air travel’ and that more than 90% of people opt not to travel at all when faced with a possible fortnight of quarantine on return.

‘The current situation in aviation is unsustainable and will costs tens of thousands of jobs in the sector without a planned return to safe travel with pre-flight testing for red zone countries,’ he said. ‘We strongly welcome the Irish government’s proposal to sign up to the EU common travel framework, hopefully in mid-October. That, however, in addition will require the adoption of a protocol for-pre departure testing for air travel, in lieu of quarantines, to be successful.’

He said that testing methodologies are advancing all the time and the adoption by the Irish government of a ‘standard, accurate, rapid, low cost’ screening method for Irish air travel could start the process of recovery for Irish aviation and tourism.

Cork Chamber has also backed the idea of rapid testing, and criticised Ryanair’s threat to pull routes from Cork.

‘Any further airline withdrawal would be utterly detrimental to connectivity in Cork,’ said the Chamber’s Conor Healy. ‘Minister Ryan must swiftly outline and implement a plan for aviation, or we will suffer the consequences for years to come.’

Mr Healy added that testing was essential to the airport’s future, in the current climate. ‘Airport testing systems, capital expenditure, route marketing and rapid agreement of a common EU approach are absolutely essential. Once EU agreement is reached, we must be ready to facilitate the agreed protocols immediately thereafter. Anything less will spell disaster for the industry, tourism and wider economy,’ he said.

Cork Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said this week that while every step must be taken regarding public health protocols, there are hundreds of direct jobs at stake at Cork Airport, and thousands indirectly linked to it. ‘And while the Minister [Ryan] seems to have a mixed view of the aviation task force report, he hasn’t brought forward anything to help map out support for the sector.’

He said we must ensure that Cork Airport is a viable international airport long after the pandemic has passed.

Cork Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer has also said the option of testing at airports should also be explored.

This week MEP Deirdre Clune said that if we lose any routes from Irish airports they will not be easily replaced. She said our air connections are not just crucial for passenger and tourist travel but are vital in supporting jobs in the pharmaceutical, technology, software, medical, finance, food and drink and all the sectors contributing to our export economy. And she noted the recent recovery taskforce report said that a stimulus package should be put in place concurrently for each of our regional airports to encourage the rebuilding of traffic.

Regarding testing, she said: ‘The government is considering many options when it comes to testing. Rapid testing at airports should only form part of a wider set of measures used to bring Covid-19 under control in Ireland.’ 

Meanwhile, Tourism Minister Eamon Ryan has urged caution. Speaking in a Dáil debate on aviation last week, he said: ‘It is vital that any alternative arrangements we put in place, including testing, do not undermine in any way the public health aspects of our response to the pandemic.’

And speaking on RTÉ at the weekend, Dr Cillian de Gascun, chair of NPHET’s Covid Advisory Committee, said that airport testing ‘misses 30% of cases’ because of the long incubation period, up to four days, for the virus, which means that some people with early stages of the virus may test negative for it. ‘It can be a component [of air travel],’ he said, ‘but it’s not the magic bullet that many people think it might be.’

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