Galway Airport was thrown a lifeline on Monday night, when Galway City Council gave ‘approval in principle’ for a €50,000 loan to secure the future of the facility.
The emergency meeting at City Hall was called after Galway County Council voted to allocate €50,000 to the embattled Carnmore airport in December, on the condition that its city counterparts matched the funding.
However, the discussions started on a sour note, with a heated row breaking out between Mayor Terry O’Flaherty and Cllrs Michael and Ollie Crowe over whether other motions would be allowed to be tabled at the meeting.
After it was confirmed that this would be the case, the debate began in earnest with councillors immediately questioning the lack of a presentation or business plan from airport officials.
Michael Coyle, who was sitting in the public gallery, was then called to the top table to take part in a question and answer session in his role as CEO of Galway Chamber, which is a major stakeholder in Galway Airport.
Mr Coyle revealed that the airport is currently between €6-€7 million in debt and said that, if emergency funding was not put in place in the coming months, the bank would take possession of the airport site and sell it into private ownership. He conceded that the airport would not be commercially viable at any stage in the next three to five years but impressed on councillors the need to protect the 115-acre site for the city.
When questioned on how the airport would manage to raise the remainder of the €500,000 needed to finance the facility annually, Mr Coyle said a business plan had been prepared outlining three possible revenue streams for the future.
These included a possible €200,000 to €250,000 in income from air services, including charter flights and emergency medical flights, rental of the two hangars at €75,000 each and further possible funding from the creation of Park and Ride in the airport’s car park.
He also confirmed that the airport was in talks over a contract for fire fighting training, which could be worth “in excess of €200,000”, and was investigating whether the emergency air ambulance for the West, currently situated at Baldonnell, could be relocated to Galway.
However, the viability of the plans was heavily questioned by councillors, who demanded confirmation from City Manager Joe O’Neill and Director of Services Ciaran Hayes on whether a Park and Ride from the Carnmore site would be feasible.
Despite several attempts to ascertain an answer, officials gave seemingly mixed responses, with Mr Hayes first saying it was “wasn’t feasible” as it could not be made cost neutral, before later confirming that the council had given support in principle to the plans and was engaged in discussions with airport management.
He also revealed that the local authority had been in contact with the County Council about the construction of a bus lane on the Monivea Road to facilitate the new service.
Cllr Peter Keane was one of the most damning of the councillors in relation to proposals of funding, saying the ratepayer was being asked to invest in a private entity and highlighting that he had “real concerns” over the manner in which the airport was being run by Galway Chamber.
He explained that he had examined the 2011 accounts for the airport and discovered that, prior to 49 staff being made redundant last year, approximately €3 million was being paid in wages annually by the company, with €118,000 going to the Managing Director.
Mr Coyle then reassured councillors that the Chamber had “no selfish motive” in operating the airport and that, if this was the case, the facility could have been sold for a high price during the Celtic Tiger boom.
Cllr Keane demanded that any funding for the airport be found from the wider city council budget, rather than the recently created City Promotional Fund. He said that it would set an unwelcome precedent for the monies as a “bail-out fund”, adding, “you know who’ll be coming next”.
The length of the runway at Galway Airport and the limitations that this may have for scheduled services was also brought to the fore, with councillors questioning whether it should have been extended when finances were in a better position.
Mr Coyle said a number of in-depth studies had been carried out into the runway and that the current length of 1,350m was viable for mid-size jets. He said an extension to 2,200m was not possible, as it would encroach on the route identified for the Galway City Outer Bypass and had been costed at €60 million during the boom.
Following a mammoth three-hour discussion, a motion was put forward to commit to providing €50,000 for Galway Airport on the condition that the Department of Transport pledged “at least €100,000” and a full business plan was presented to and approved by city councillors at the next scheduled meeting in February.
The motion was passed by a majority, with eleven councillors voting in favour, Cllrs Nuala Nolan and Cllr Padraig Conneely voting against and Cllr Hildegarde Naughton abstaining from the vote. Cllr Niall McNelis had earlier withdrawn from the debate due to a conflict of interest caused by his role as a director with Galway Chamber.