The Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has warned that another full-blown lockdown is "not inconceivable", and that allocating further supports for the aviation sector will involve hard choices about priorities.
Mr Ryan was addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications Networks which was hearing submissions on the challenges facing the aviation sector.
Representatives of Aer Lingus, Ryanair, the daa and Shannon Group called on the Government to align travel policy with the proposed EU "Traffic Light" system, to introduce a comprehensive testing regime to replace quarantines, and to implement in full the recommendations of the Final Report of the Aviation Recovery Taskforce which were published three months ago.
They also outlined the severe disruption to passenger numbers, revenue and jobs for airlines and airports triggered by the pandemic.
The Minister said every effort should be made to ensure restrictions on free movement where necessary had due regard to the benefit for public health "... and are based upon reasonable grounds and evidence".
He went on: "However, while I emphasise that free movement is an important principle it is clear that if the epidemiological situation deteriorates significantly enough the prospect of another full-blown lockdown is not inconceivable and must be avoided".
He said the Department of Transport is continuing to explore the options for aviation supports, with colleagues in Government, but cautioned: "This is unfortunately a matter of hard-choices about priorities - of keeping schools open, keeping hospital beds free for those that need them, keeping economies alive and protecting jobs".
He cited CSO data between the second quarter of 2019 and 2020 showing that 10.3 million fewer passengers used Irish airports, and that there were 67,000 fewer flights.
The Minister said some of the recommendations of the Aviation Recovery Task Force had already been delivered, including the protocol of safe air travel, adding that further work was ongoing to deliver other recommendations.
He said Ireland has updated the "Green List" as a first step to aligning with the proposed EU "Traffic Light" approach.
The Minister acknowledged that because of the impact of Covid-19, there would be a continuing risk of reduced capacity, less route choice and lower demand in the months ahead "with or without intervention by state or at EU level".
The Minister of State for International and Road Transport and Logistics said there were elements of the proposed Traffic Light system for air travel that member states could agree, but other elements were more challenging, "particularly discussions around testing and quarantine restrictions, which fall to the public health authorities competence and responsibility in each Member State".
Hildegarde Naughton said the European proposal was expected to progress to a decision at the General Affairs Council of the EU on 13 October, and that in the meantime member states were trying to find a compromise in the challenging areas of testing and restriction regimes.
She acknowledged the preference for airport testing that is "quick, cheap, available and meets the public health threshold for accuracy, specificity and sensitivity". However she noted that the World Health Organization did not consider antigen-based testing suitable for an international travel testing context.
Ms Naughten cited a range of Government supports made available to the aviation industry and other businesses, including grants, low-cost loans, waiver of commercial rates, deferred tax liabilities, the Wage Subsidy Schemes and the Pandemic Unemployment Payment.
However, she acknowledged that aviation stakeholders had had to make difficult decisions to ensure their long-term commercial viability.