Transport official to be quizzed over Shannon fiasco

DEPARTMENT of Transport secretary general Julie O’Neill will be asked to appear before a Dáil committee to answer questions about her department’s handling of Shannon Airport’s loss of its Heathrow slots, it has emerged.

The committee held its first substantive private meeting yesterday, where the main issue of concern for a number of members across party lines was the decision by Aer Lingus to axe its Shannon to London Heathrow service and the department’s response.

The committee, under new chairman Frank Fahey, decided it would ask Ms O’Neill and other senior officials from her department to appear before it.

Transport Minister Noel Dempsey asked Ms O’Neill to report to him on communications failures within the department that led to him not being informed until days before the decision to axe the service in early August.

Ms O’Neill discovered that she herself had been informed of the possible danger to the Shannon slots in June, had received two emails setting out in clear terms the nature of the threat, and had spoken to Aer Lingus chairman John Sharman about it.

Her report stated that the conversation with Mr Sharman reassured her there was no immediate threat.

The issue was put on the back burner until late July, when the department learned Aer Lingus had decided to transfer the slots to Belfast.

Ms O’Neill’s report was heavily criticised by the opposition, who called for an independent report.

Fine Gael transport spokesman Fergus O’Dowd said she should have stepped aside from conducting the inquiry once she became aware of her own involvement.

The Department of Transport officials, and possibly Mr Dempsey, will appear before the committee to answer questions about who knew what and when, and whether more could have been done by department officials.

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