Aer Arann is more than an airline to the Aran Islands. It’s a lifeline

Inis Mór Airport on the Aran Islands. The island's air link to the mainland is under threat as Government has decided to use a helicopter service.

Caomhan Keane explains the link between the Aran Islands and Aer Arann and shows why the link is as much about the past and the people as it is about the future.

As first jobs go, mine was a bit of a doozy. Six times a day, with the help of my pup Streak, I took to the airfield at Inis Mór Airport to clear it of rabbits and donkeys that may have wandered onto the runway, allowing for the safe landing of the daily flights from the mainland that brought only passengers, but the post, the papers, and perishables.

Another obstacle has wandered into the path of Aer Arann of late, and alas, Streak is no longer with us to chase him off. Minister for the Gaeltacht Joe McHugh last month announced that the preferred tender to provide an air service to the Aran Islands was no longer to be Aer Arann.

Executive Helicopters would now provide a new service, from a new location, allowing the airline that proceeded it — and the 40 jobs it provided, in four separate locations — to expire.

Aer Arann is more than an airline to the Aran Islands. It’s a lifeline

Refusing to consult with the islanders en masse — or address them at public meetings or protests, Mr McHugh — who has never even officially set foot on the islands, was instead “pleased” to be able to make the announcement via press release

Mr McHugh’s wanton disregard for the islanders’ wishes is a byproduct of his department’s wish to be rid of the €1.2m it costs them, annually, to provide an adequate link for islanders to the mainland.

In the minister’s defence, though, it’s a saddle that shouldn’t be strapped to his back.

Shouldn’t the cost of running an air service be taken from the Department of Transport, Tourism, and Sport’s far more substantial budget, than that of the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht? Like a proverbial mule, the minister has dug in his heels, unwilling to say anything of consequence when faced with the island’s representatives, bleating on about how the tender is an “ongoing processes” — a stance he has also taken with the press.

Mr McHugh hasn’t addressed the fact that Galway Airport is 52km away from the current airfield at Inverin, a full hour’s drive from the ferry port of Ros a Mhíl, so in cases of bad weather the option to just ‘get the boat’ is no longer available.

He hasn’t allayed the fears of older people — or anyone else — who’ve watched footage of helicopters operating in the North Sea, where grown men are sick to their stomachs at the jolty journeys.

Nor will he comment on why a helicopter service was chosen in the first place. There are no other islands in Europe that rely on helicopters, as they are expensive and unreliable.

Aer Arann is more than an airline to the Aran Islands. It’s a lifeline

It now looks as if the islanders will have no air service in place this winter to provide fast and easy access to essential services such as chemotherapy, education, and dental work, or for imperative yet mundane household and business needs.

Executive Helicopters were supposed to start servicing the islands from next month, but it has been revealed that they haven’t received permission to use the Caranmore strip beyond this coming January.

And so Mr McHugh announced last Thursday that Aer Arann was to get a four-month extension on their current contract. Without confirming that the airline was interested in extending their contract

While Aer Arann is reasonably asking why it should keep the seat warm for their cuckold — particularly during the least lucrative season — islanders have started to wonder why no one can tell them what type of helicopter is replacing the aircraft they have used for 45 years.

Ironically, when my grandfather, Collie Hernon, went after State funding in the early 1960s to establish an air service for the island, it was a helicopter he envisioned. Being denied, he capitalised on a grant being offered by the CIÉ to make up for disbanded railway routes to secure the start-up dosh.

And from its very first flight, on August 15, 1970, it became a flashpoint for community action.

No sooner had Yankee November touched down with her plane full of dignitaries than a black squall descended on the island, cancelling all flights for the rest of the day. Bobby Molloy, a government minister, had to sleep on the ground in a German tourist’s bedroom, as all the B&Bs were booked up.

Aer Arann is more than an airline to the Aran Islands. It’s a lifeline

As the launch party raged, the storm worsened outside and as the first pilots, Bill Wallace and Hayden Lawford, stumbled out of the pub at around midnight, they realised that the planes were at risk.

“It was really wild and we had no means of tying the planes down,” Hayden told me in 2010, not long before his death. “So Bill, myself, and nine islanders tucked ourselves into the planes and sat in them all night, drinking and talking.”

Such community action was regularly required to, quite literally, keep the home fires burning. The runway got emergency landing lights in 1991. Before that, if there was a medical evacuation, islanders would run door to door to create a makeshift runway using tractor lights, torches, and drum fires.

For the first year, Bill and Hayden lived in caravans on the site of the first airstrip (the same one Executive Helicopters now want to use), which was abandoned after one year as it was deemed unsuitable. During a dreadful storm one winter, my grandfather’s office, a portable building, was blown out to sea and never seen again.

Bill and Hayden would fly in at all times, in all conditions — once landing on a beach in Inis Meáin to save someone who’d had a heart attack.

Collie, meanwhile, worked at Aer Arann until he died. In fact, as he suffered through the heart attack that eventually killed him, he had to get up off the stretcher to turn on the landing lights so he could be flown off the island.

Aer Arann is his legacy, a living one, which continues to do for the islanders what he tried to do throughout his life — saving lives and bringing about modernity. Together, they reversed the depopulation that threatened to eradicate the islands, leaving second-level education, electricity, and industry in their wake.

Now a minister looks to reverse it all, creating ghost islands to match Enda’s ghost estates.

Expenditure per islander less than national average

The Aran Islands have the largest population of all the Irish islands, yet the current Government expenditure per capita is slightly under the overall national average of €2,740 per head.

When compared to the money spent by other European countries on their islands, Ireland lags well behind. Scotland spends €86 per head on most of their islands, while they spend up to €100 per head on the Benbecula route.

In 2014, the HSE would no longer pay the €400 it cost to charter a flight to provide medical evacuations for people with serious, but not life-threatening, injuries.

Instead, it costs the taxpayers €2,400 for each hour the Coast Guard is called out, leading to the ludicrous scenario, in June of last year, where two separate helicopters were summoned on the same day, for a woman with a broken ankle. (The second was called when the first was diverted.)

Aer Arann’s current PSO from the State is €1.2m. The revised PSO, won by Executive Helicopters, was for €800,000.

This isn’t much more than annual social welfare payments that will need to be paid to those in the direct employment of Aer Arann as of next month, most of whom have skills that are not transferable.

Factor in the additional dole drawn when jobs are lost due to a downturn in tourism and craft trades, and that saving from cutting the PSO becomes dwarfed by hand-outs. Inis Maan Knitting Factory feel they will probably have to relocate. They employ 10% of the entire island’s population

Jobs that would only take an hour or so to do — such as fixing the Sky box or wi-fi — will now cost islanders a full day’s rate, as the helicopter and ferry service will be reduced to two crossings a piece. Islanders will also have to wait for service providers to have a full day that they can commit to doing the simplest of jobs.


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