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Minister defends bailout plan for doomed Belfast to US air route

By John Mulgrew

The Executive failed to establish a business case to determine what benefit the soon to end United Airlines air route from Belfast to New York (Newark) had on the economy here due to "tight timescales".

United Airlines is scrapping its Belfast International to Newark flight in January.

It was to have received a £9m bailout - two-thirds of which was coming from the Executive - to secure the link.

However, the European Commission blocked the funding package under State aid rules.

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton has said that it is "regrettable that in spite of all the efforts that were made that United are terminating the service".

Asked what evidence exists that a direct transatlantic route from Belfast to North America has been important for Northern Ireland's economy, Mr Hamilton said: "A direct transatlantic route from Belfast to North America has been important for Northern Ireland's economy over the past decade in terms of increasing our tourism, enhancing our prospects in attracting US-based investors and helping our local companies to export their products and services.

"The United States is the largest source of foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland and our largest exports market outside of the EU.

"Over the past decade of the United Airlines service, over one million passengers travelled on the flight, with significant benefits for local tourism."

Mr Hamilton was responding to an Assembly question from Green Party leader Steven Agnew.

Asked what business case had been established, formally, to determine the benefit to the economy here, Mr Hamilton said: "It was not possible to produce a formal business case in the tight timescales required by United for a decision."

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