Belfast International Airport loses out to Dublin in the race for long-haul routes
Planned new long-haul routes from Northern Ireland to Toronto and Abu Dhabi will not be introduced this year, raising fears that our main airport is being allowed to stagnate.
The Belfast Telegraph can today reveal that the proposed routes from Belfast International Airport (BIA) won't be operational by the end of this year at least.
The development has raised fears that BIA has little or no future as an international hub without immediate government help.
A senior Stormont politician has now issued a stark warning that Belfast "isn't at the races" when it comes to competing with Dublin for lucrative international air routes.
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) figures due out this week are expected to confirm that, in terms of air traffic, Northern Ireland has been stagnating for years. By contrast, Dublin Airport is booming.
And while Northern Ireland's new long-haul aspirations have been shelved, Dublin currently boasts four routes to Canada alone, and two to the Middle East.
BIA has only one long-haul route – a New York-Newark service – which was only saved three years ago after an 11th hour U-turn by Chancellor George Osborne on the crippling air passenger duty (APD) imposed on long-haul flights from the UK.
It is almost two years since the Belfast Telegraph revealed that there were high hopes of securing a direct route from BIA to Abu Dhabi.
Alastair Hamilton, Invest NI chief executive, said at the time "there is a fairly high chance it will happen" while Economy Minister Arlene Foster spoke of the benefits it would bring. But the route has failed to materialise, along with a new direct flight to Toronto which, it was hoped, would re-connect Northern Ireland with Canada.
Now politicians have been urged to find a way of making Northern Ireland more competitive in the air traffic market, the stagnation of which is having a debilitating effect on tourism and the local economy.
At present Northern Ireland simply can't compete with the Republic, which can offer airlines huge financial incentives.
BIA remains the second biggest airport on the island of Ireland, but handles only around a fifth of Dublin's 20m passenger volume.
"We are not getting any new long-haul routes this year," BIA business director Uel Hoey told the Belfast Telegraph. "We would still like to get Canada but we're not going to get it in 2014."
Stormont's Enterprise, Trade and Investment committee chair Patsy McGlone called on the Executive to support its largest airport, which was bought by global conglomerate ACD & HAS last October.
"Dublin airport isn't just having a free run at the international market; they're at the races, they're competitive and they see where the potential is," said Mr McGlone.
"We can learn a lot from them. We can't let the air traffic figures get any worse. The Executive must inject a degree of urgency into this."
Since the devolution of long-haul APD to Stormont in 2012, not one major international carrier has opted for Northern Ireland.
David McNarry (below), UK Independence Party MLA, called for immediate action.
"It's shocking that BIA is being allowed to stagnate," he said.
"Why should we have to go to Dublin? It's a disgrace that we're not getting an air link with Canada. It's time for Stormont to get the finger out. We have to compete with Dublin on a level playing field.
He added: "When the First and Deputy First Ministers go globetrotting they're not flying direct from their own international airport – that tells a story."
Trade and Tourism Minister Arlene Foster said that a "major review of air connectivity" is ongoing, to examine "what options there are to improve Northern Ireland's air access to key business and tourism markets".
"Northern Ireland is well connected to markets across the globe via hub access at Heathrow, through the Aer Lingus and BA routes to Heathrow," she said.
"However direct access is important and my objective remains to secure direct long-haul access to key markets where possible."