Without too much fanfare, during the summer recess it was announced that United Airlines had been considering withdrawing the Belfast International – Newark route from service. The airline had previously made a decision to cancel the route from January to March of 2015.
Discussions took place between United Airlines, Belfast International Airport officials, the British Government and the NI Executive and the decision was made to retain the route, at least for the next 3 years.
As the Irish News reported at the time though, this route made a profit for the airline and the suggested cancellation was to allow the United to move the aircraft capacity to more profitable routes. There was a previous attempt to save such airline services by the Executive by removing Air Passenger Duty from long-haul flights.
A £9 million ‘aid deal’ was swiftly put together by the NI Executive, despite concerns about value for money being expressed by Andrew McCormick, Permanent Secretary at the Departent for the Economy.
£6 million of the aid deal for United Airlines to keep the flight operational will come directly from the Department for the Economy budget.
Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn criticised the decision,
This move by the Executive is an act of madness, for the Department to consent to giving millions of pounds to United Airlines each year in the absence of any detailed business case is breathtaking, particularly when it appears to have disregarded the concerns of the Permanent Secretary.
There remains no guarantee United will even stay beyond those three years. The Executive has effectively promised this money without any proper scrutiny in place and questions need asked.
That so much money was budgeted to essentially pay an airline to keep a route going which is already making the company profit, is a matter that deserves questions to be asked of it.
If the Executive wished to maintain an air route between NI and the USA, should there have been a competitive tender process before giving over such a large sum of public money?
Is this potentially giving licence for any airline running a route deemed by the Executive to be important, to hold the Executive to ransom in order for the route to continue, despite its profitability?
This is the kind of issue that Opposition parties should thrive on – scrutinising public spending.
At the time, Danny Kinehan MP of South Antrim said of the deal,
This is an excellent example of what can be achieved when political differences can be put aside.
Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said,
It is public money being spent to ensure we keep this very important route in place.