One of the biggest airlines in the world, United Airlines is set to pull out of its Belfast International to Newark route in January 2017.
The Executive had agreed a £9 million aid package to the airline (this is on top of the cuts to APD that are already in place) to help keep the route going. The EU has however, blocked the aid package on state aid grounds.
I have used this route many times and my brother brings many of his clients back from California via this route, so I can see why having it is a bonus. However, I felt that the aid package to an airline which does not need money and has a net income that would account for roughly 70% of our block grant was an incredible waste of funds considering the support that is already there and the fact that Dublin is only 100 miles down the road with immigration controls to the USA on this side of travelling there. It is important to keep in mind that United already operate a route to Dublin and airlines like Aer Lingus have upped their offering to the USA over the past year.
If anything positive can come from this it has to be a review of how we manage aviation in Northern Ireland. Simply throwing money at airlines is not enough, we need to have the best offering at our airports and proper coordination with routes going to Heathrow and Dublin as the two main hubs of travel within the UK and Ireland.
Here is the response from Belfast International Airport;
To block a support package for an airline that delivers direct access to the United States is almost beyond comprehension.
This is a bad day for the executive and a bad day for Northern Ireland, which is still finding its feet after a generation lost to conflict. The United service was well supported and only recently carried its millionth passenger.
We have worked tirelessly to safeguard the service, but Brussels took a different view, believing the support package gave United an unfair advantage over services from elsewhere.
Also on the package
I’m told only part of the £9m aid was ever paid to United – and it will be recouped with interest. “No loss to public purse” is the quote.
— Julian O’Neill (@julianoneill) November 4, 2016
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs