KLM chief: Air duty puts Belfast at competitive disadvantage
A senior manager at Dutch airline KLM, which has announced plans to fly from George Best Belfast City Airport, has called for the abolition of air passenger duty.
Warner Rootliep, the airline's general manager for the UK and Ireland, said that "a level playing field" was needed for passengers, as he visited Belfast to launch the new route.
In the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, George Osborne announced that APD will be scrapped for children under 12 from May and for the under 16s in 2016.
But the tax on departing short-haul flights has meant that more than one million Northern Ireland holidaymakers choose to fly from Dublin each year, where the tax was scrapped last year.
Mr Rootliep said he was approaching the problem from two angles.
"APD was scrapped on the only long haul flight out of Northern Ireland, the United Airlines flight from Belfast International Airport to Newark, but still applies to short haul flights," he said.
"On the other hand, people flying from Dublin do not have any APD at all, so we would prefer to see a level playing field and ideally we would like to see APD abolished.
"This move would allow us to offer more competitive fares."
Mr Rootliep said that in the short term, he would like to see the once daily flights, which went on sale this week and begin in May, increased to two or three times a day.
He also said that the Fokker 70 jet aircraft, which carry up to 80 passengers, could also be replaced with larger aircraft with greater capacity.
In the longer term, he said that more European destinations could be added.
"We have seen hundreds of bookings already since the route was announced this week and we are very happy with the uptake already," he said.
"If the service is successful we could bring in aircraft capable of carrying up to 180 people."
He added that despite competition with the easyJet service to Amsterdam from Belfast International Airport, and a cap that limits the City to selling two million departing seats a year, a Schipol-bound flight from the facility was a "natural choice".
KLM left the Northern Ireland market in 1999, after operating from Belfast International, and easyJet started flights to Amsterdam from the International in January 2001.
"easyJet operates a point to point service, whereas we operate many onward connections through the KLM network and our SkyTeam Alliance partnership, which links us with many other big airlines.
"We also operate a business class service and premium economy as well as economy seating.
"Schipol was a natural choice as a first route from Belfast City but the potential is there to open up other European destinations."
The Netherlands is an important business market for Northern Ireland as one of the largest export markets in the EU for Northern Ireland manufacturers. Onward links from Schipol, including Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico, Moscow, Johannesburg and Bangkok, could be hugely lucrative for business passengers.
And Mr Rootliep said that while KLM has invested heavily on new routes from Schipol, including destinations in Latin America, he is also keen to bring leisure tourists to Northern Ireland.
"We work heavily with tourism organisations in the countries to which we fly and we look forward to engaging closely with agencies here and working together to promote Northern Ireland as a tourism destination for people from the Netherlands and indeed elsewhere in Europe. The Dutch are very travel-savvy people and we hope they will be exploring Belfast and its surroundings."