The European Commission is stepping in to break the deadlock threatening the launch of the first transatlantic flights from Cork.
The commission has agreed to invoke an arbitration process between EU and US transport officials, as is provided for by the EU-US Open Skies Agreement.
European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy last night confirmed the development, which he said followed intensive lobbying by the Government.
He described the commission’s decision as “hugely significant”, amid mounting concerns that the proposed May launch of the service is at risk.
“I would hope that this decision would help move the discussions forward and that it would result in an urgent resolution,” said Mr Murphy.
However, the complex arbitration process could take up to four months, putting it two months beyond the May launch of the proposed Cork-to-Boston service.
A spokesperson for European Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc, declined last night to comment on the process, but said contacts with the US authorities are ongoing.
He said Ms Bulc will be in Washington DC this month for discussions with the US authorities on the decarbonisation of aviation and he said it is expected that the issue of the Cork-to-US flights will be addressed.
Cllr Alan Coleman, who was part of a county council delegation which lobbied key figures in Boston late last year on the matter, welcomed the arbitration, but said it is “far from a result”.
“This process will take time and the Cork region will likely miss out unnecessarily on a tourism season, due to a lack of cooperation from the US authorities,” he said.
“The Irish government are facilitating the US in other facets, including allowing US troops to land in Shannon Airport.
“Whether you agree with Shannon being used for this purpose or not is irrelevant. It is a diplomatic concession by the Irish government to the US government.
“In short, Taoiseach Enda Kenny needs to contact Barack Obama and request that his authorities cooperate. An open skies agreement is in place, it is not being honoured, and going through a long drawn-out legal process, in my opinion, is a smoke-screen before next week’s election. Our taoiseach needs to act now and call the White House.”
The move to arbitration follows increased diplomatic efforts in recent weeks, prompted by the unprecedented two-year delay by the US Department of Transportation (DoT) in making a decision on an application from Norwegian airline’s Irish subsidiary, Norwegian Air International (NAI), for a foreign carrier permit to launch Cork-to-Boston flights in May. The low-cost operator is also planning to launch a Cork-to-New York service next year. The airline says despite the delays, it is still committed to launching the services.
The proposed first transatlantic flights from Cork have been described by business, tourism, and political leaders in the south west as hugely important for the region.
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