Waterford Airport given lifeline by Varadkar

Waterford Airport.

Pádraig Hoare

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has pledged support for Waterford Airport, handing the crisis-hit facility a potential lifeline two years after the last commercial flight took off.

The airport has been without any commercial flights since mid-2016 and received €375,000 in State funds last January to support the Coastguard Search and Rescue service based at the facility for six months.

EY began a review last month to examine the airport’s prospects after Transport Minister Shane Ross ordered an independent consultant to examine “options for Waterford Airport” in April.

In 2012, Waterford Airport had more than 77,000 passengers but numbers dropped significantly in the years after. It carried only 13,500 passengers in 2016.

By contrast, Donegal Airport carried more than three times that number in 2016 with 44,100, according to CSO figures.

Airport chief executive Desmond O’Flynn stepped down in January.

Proposed Waterford routes to Luton, Birmingham, and Manchester by Aer Southeast, announced last year, failed to materialise after the airline failed to secure the required licence.

Aer Southeast is still believed to be interested in the routes, however.

Mr Varadkar told the Dáil this week that the Government was willing to support Waterford’s bid to restore routes.

We are supporting Waterford Airport as best we can, though it does not have any flights any more. However, we think it is important that it is assisted in its efforts to encourage carriers to operate again between the South-East and England.

His comments offered fresh hope to airport management, which was warned by Mr Ross in April that the €375,000 in funding in January was an “exceptional measure, given the airport’s current difficult financial situation”, adding that the long-mooted runway extension could not be funded by the State.

An extension of the runway would allow bigger aircraft to land and make the airport more appealing to larger carriers, according to business and political leaders.

Mr Ross said Waterford has received “substantial exchequer support” under the regional airports programme. The €20m investment over the past 10 years “does not extend to supporting the development of capacity expansions at the regional airports”.

“Decisions of that nature — for example, the proposed runway extension at Waterford — are commercial matters for airports themselves and are outside the scope of the programme,” Mr Ross said in April.

We must have regard to the prudent use of taxpayers’ money and we will not be in a position to consider further exchequer support for Waterford unless and until we have visibility on a sustainable future for the airport. The airport authorities in Waterford are aware of this position.

Management at Waterford Airport welcomed the EY review after it began, saying it gave an opportunity to showcase how the facility could help the South East region.

It is believed a business case has been put forward to the Department of Transport involving private investment.

Minister of State and Waterford-based TD, John Halligan, has said extending the runway is “crucial” for the viability of Waterford Airport in the long-term.

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