Speaking at the annual symposium of the Irish Aviation Students’ Association, Diarmuid Ó Conghaile, recently appointed Aviation Regulator / CEO Designate of the Irish Aviation Authority, commented that the aviation sector cannot simply be switched off and on at will.
“The economic and social successes of the last 30 years derive from our openness. The aviation sector gives us that openness. In a typical year, approx. 95% of the people entering or leaving Ireland do so by air. The situation is very different on the European continent where extensive road and rail networks operate. As an island nation we have enjoyed exceptionally good connectivity because of the strong indigenous aviation sector, but we cannot take this sector for granted.
The situation is that some airlines have cut aircraft, operational bases and employment on a permanent basis. This has a knock-on impact throughout the sector, affecting airports, maintenance providers, training organisations, and others.
The extreme distress of the aviation sector will also impact the 8% of the economy (% of GNP) that is accounted for by travel and tourism, and these are the more employment-intensive sectors of catering, accommodation, leisure and entertainment. Business and inward investment will also be affected. Right now, the national focus is on pandemic containment, as it should be; but we must also start planning for the recovery of aviation.
Aviation cannot simply be switched off and on. It will take time to ramp up activity, and businesses need guidelines that can facilitate planning with regard to route selection, fleet management, crew currency and training. Airports will need to ramp up security capacity and other operational facilities.
When the time comes, airports and airlines will continue to apply the necessary health measures at all points through the passenger journey, including hand-hygiene, mask wearing, reduction of touch points, etc.”
Key elements of the restart plan include the following:
Resumed use by Ireland of the EU Traffic Light System, which has recently been updated, with testing and quarantine consistent with that system;
Confirmation of different stages in the vaccine roll-out programme and/or other pandemic metrics at which non-essential travel can be unlocked;
Exemption from testing and quarantine for people with documentary proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid19;
Deployment of rapid antigen testing in addition to PCR and mutual recognition of antigen testing with partner countries.’
“The EU digital Green Pass is a good idea, but we can’t necessarily wait for that. I welcome the recent comments from the Tánaiste that we are looking at other actions in this area, for example at what is being done in Israel.”
In addition, commenting on future employment in aviation, Ó Conghaile told the Irish Aviation Students Association symposium that prospects will be good in the medium term. “While employment in the sector traditionally meant pilot, cabin crew and engineers, there are now demands for many different skill sets, including disciplines such as information security and artificial intelligence, as well as law, economics, accountancy and finance.”
Ó Conghaile pointed to rapid expansion in drone activity as one of a number of exciting developments. “The IAA has invested in digitalisation and we already have an online 24/7 portal for drone operators. Today you can register as a drone operator and complete your competency training online, day or night. Europe will shortly publish the first pan-European “U-Space regulation”, governing complex drone operations in our cities and suburbs. You can think of this as air traffic control for drones. There is a lot to do in this space for both operators and regulators. Ultimately, the technology has the potential to be transformative.”
Concluding his comments, Ó Conghaile said that what was previous considered the ‘environmental challenge’ has become the ‘environmental imperative’. “Aviation has to do more to address this imperative, including more efficient use of air space, deployment of more efficient aircraft and engines, more efficient manufacture, increased use of good-quality, verifiable carbon offset, and use of synthetic aviation fuel (SAF). SAF is particularly interesting because it can be used in conjunction with traditional fuel. The cost is currently very high, and supply limited, but a lot of research is underway, including in our own University of Limerick.”