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European air routes fund is a gateway to stronger Northern Ireland economy, says study

By Lesley Houston

Published 07/04/2015

Flights from Belfast to Berlin, home of the Brandenburg Gate, could become easier under the proposal
Flights from Belfast to Berlin, home of the Brandenburg Gate, could become easier under the proposal

Northern Ireland’s economy could be boosted if a development fund for new air routes to Europe gets the green light.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has said the proposed fund could encourage greater connectivity to European cities not served by our three main airports.

During a briefing on a report on the economic benefits of reducing or abolishing Air Passenger Duty, senior Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) officials said new routes to Germany, Scandinavia, Milan, Brussels and Madrid would benefit business and tourism traffic.

The report shows that whether cut or shelved, the economic impact on the tourism sector is negative, as the increase in outbound tourism is much greater than the number of inbound visitors.

The paper suggests that more targeted interventions, such as a locally-focused air route fund, may be a more effective tool.

The call for a new route development pot follows the announcement of a number of routes taking off for the first time this week from Belfast International.

Flights to Poland, Italy and the Czech Republic have been announced ahead of new connections later this year to Gran Canaria, Verona in Italy and Zante in the Greek islands.

The DETI’s Diarmuid McLean said: “A route development fund could be targeted at business destinations and routes with inbound tourism potential.

“Until last year, EU rules effectively prohibited the use of air route development funds. However, the commission has now changed the state aid rules to permit the use of state route development funds.”

The report comes on the heels of long-standing calls for the scrapping of what airports and airlines have described as a “departure tax”.

Mr McLean told the enterprise committee that Mrs Foster had asked for the creation of the fund to focus on, “supporting routes with business and inbound tourism potential”.

John Simms, also from DETI explained: “We would focus any air route development fund on markets and cities where we are not served, for example, Germany, Scandinavia, Milan and Brussels.

“It would be a focused intervention. It would focus on inbound tourism and business potential.

Mr Simms said that, technically, the two smaller airports here — City of Derry and Belfast City — would qualify for a fund under new relaxed EC rules, but Belfast International wouldn’t. However, officials argue that because Northern Ireland is cut off from the new HS2 high-speed rail link connecting Britain and Europe, a special case should be made.

“One of our arguments to the commission will be that all our airports must be included in this,” Mr Simms said.

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