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United Airlines: Last direct flight from Belfast to New York takes off

By Business Reporters

The last United Airlines flight from Belfast to New York has taken to the skies.

United is pulling its direct tranatlantic link from Belfast International to Newark.

That comes after it was offered a £9m bailout package to retain the route. Around two thirds of that was due to come from the Executive.

But the airline announced it was pulling the route at the end of last year, after it was feared the bailout would be in breach of EU rules around State aid.

The last flight took off from Belfast at 11.57am on Monday.

The flight departed behind schedule following a delay in the arrival of the final inward flight from New York to Belfast, which touched down shortly after 10am with 160 passengers on board.

As passengers arrived at the check-in desks many spoke of their disappointment that the air route - which they saw as a direct link to family and friends - had been stopped.

However, airport managing director Graham Keddie insisted they are working closely with government to deliver a major long-haul project that would "open up attractive additional and badly needed connections."

Among those at the airport were the Mulholland and Rooney family.

Eleanor Rooney and husband Jim were wishing off sister Grainne Mulholland, who moved away from Northern Ireland at the start of the Troubles.

The family travel back and forth regularly and said the loss of the route would make it harder for them to see each other.

John and Dorinda Kildea and their young son Corey, who are originally from Northern Ireland, were travelling back to Philadelphia after spending Christmas with family.

"We have lived in Philadelphia for 20 years. We come home two or three times a year and this was the flight we used.

"Our son Corey is two-and-a-half and he has been home on this flight six times," said John.

"It is disruption for us now, it's a blow. I guess we will be looking at the Dublin flight now.

"All our family still live here in Northern Ireland and this was a handy flight because it didn't mean so much driving this side.

"We are due to fly back home again in June, more than likely going to have to go through Dublin," John added.

Haig Dick, originally from Islandmagee in Northern Ireland, said: "I use this flight many times as I have a lot of family here.

"I live in Long Island, New York and would use this flight three or four times a year. It was a direct link to my family.

"I was disappointed to hear this was the last flight.

"It's a bit of inconvenience having to get from Dublin. That adds extra time on to the journey."

Elizabeth Watford, who is originally from Londonderry but now lives in Virginia, was flying back to the US with her sister Ann Dagenais.

"We usually come back to see our sisters and brothers every two years. This year we came home for Christmas for the first time in 40 years," said Elizabeth.

She added: "I'm going to miss the direct flight. We enjoyed coming into Belfast.

"I'm hoping they will find another direct flight before we come back again. It's sad."

Orlaith Duggan, from Boston, was flying back to the US after visiting family for Christmas.

"My parents are from here and we have a house on the Antrim coast. This is the flight we used growing up to visit my mum's family in Belfast," said Orlaith.

She added: "I only found out a few days ago on the radio that this is the last flight.

"It is really disappointing. I live in Boston now. I was able to just jump on a bus to Newark and fly direct here and it was very handy.

"Growing up, we were here every summer. With no direct flight, going to Dublin it's not the most convenient thing in terms of getting to Belfast from the States.

"And also, flying into London first isn't always convenient because you are just so jet-lagged, especially if you're coming from the west coast (of the US).

"This direct flight made my journey much shorter."

Speaking as the last United Airlines flight departed from Belfast International, Mr Keddie said talks are ongoing in relation to future plans for transatlantic services.

He said the departure of United Airlines was a "big loss for the Northern Ireland access to the US market."

"Over one million people used the service in the 11 and a half years it has been operating.

"We see there is a definite market here. It is disappointing United is leaving," said Mr Keddie.

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, said:

"It is deeply regrettable that today sees the departure from Belfast International Airport of United Airlines last direct flight to Newark. Along with the International Airport, the Executive agreed a package of financial support last summer that was aimed at maintaining this important business and tourism route.  Unfortunately, that offer of assistance was thwarted by Brussels bureaucrats. 

"I continue to work closely with the International Airport to explore other possible air routes to North America and I am pleased that we have been working together on some options.  I also intend to announce the establishment of a new Air Routes Task Force in the coming weeks and that will help us to identify key routes that Northern Ireland's airports should be targeting and suggesting possible policy interventions and initiatives to attract airlines."

Belfast International Airport boss Graham Keddie has said it is "very close" to securing a replacement direct flight to the US as passenger numbers reached record levels of 5.15 million for 2016.

He said they are working hard with the Government and pursuing a "number of positive leads" to fill the gap left by United.

It's understood it is in talks with three airlines about a replacement New York link.

The United flight has suffered turbulence for several years. In 2011, the Executive scrapped air passenger duty (APD) on the flights, in an attempt to secure the link.

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