Over 600 people attended a meeting with Minister of State for the Gaeltacht Joe McHugh in Furbo, Galway, yesterday to protest against the decision of the Government to grant a four-year air service contract to Executive Helicopters, based in Woodford.
The contract is capped at an annual €900,000 – a 30% cut to the tender which had been secured by Aer Árann Islands which operated the service uninterrupted since 1970.
There is growing anger among residents over the decision, with the Government accused of contributing to a “slow death” of the three Aran Islands.
Coiste leis an tSeirbhís Aeir go hÁrainn a Chosaint (SOS Save our Service) said islanders’ concerns were never taken into account when the tender document had been drawn up.
Galway Airport, it was claimed, is unsuitable for the needs and requirements of islanders, as Minna Airport where Aer Árann operates, is just 8km from the ferry service in Ros a Mhíl, giving people an option of catching the ferry if a flight is cancelled due to bad weather.
Galway Airport, where the helicopter company is based, is over 50km from Ros a Mhíl and requires a drive of over an hour depending on traffic conditions.
The group pointed out no other regular offshore Island service in Europe was supplied by helicopter.
Aer Árann labelled the awarding of the contract to a helicopter service as “ill-conceived” and said it would have a direct impact on the the viability of all staff employed by the airline connected with the route.
The airline said that while the Department of Transport’s public service obligation (PSO) was to provide a minimum of two flights a day, in August alone it operated up to 27 return flights per day to cater for the needs of the island population, professional medicals, tradesmen and tourists.
The board of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann/The Irish Islands Federation said a helicopter service was “not only unsuitable but would lessen the sustainability of the Aran Islands”.