New Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has been called “anti-aviation” by the Irish boss of British Airways.
Willie Walsh made the quip as he congratulated the ex-Transport Minister on her appointment.
Mr Walsh told Northern Ireland Affairs Committee MPs at Westminster: “She was previously the Aviation Minister, or, as some would say, the anti-aviation minister.”
Ms Villiers had “opposed the growth of aviation”, he said, adding: “I would hope that the new Secretary of State would now appreciate the value of aviation on her regular visits between London and Belfast.”
Giving evidence to the committee, Mr Walsh, the chief executive of BA parent company IAG, said it was “absolutely committed” to Belfast City Airport.
He threw down the gauntlet to Aer Lingus over its switch to Belfast City Airport, expressed “deep regret” over bmi job losses, defended BA’s fares and branded George Osborne “scared” of looking at scrapping controversial air passenger duty (APD).
Bosses of Ryanair and easyJet set out their plans for Northern Ireland, although Ryanair refused to comment on its latest attempted takeover of Aer Lingus.
Mr Walsh told the committee it would not make business sense to sever Heathrow’s short-term links with Belfast, which is “very much part of our global network”.
He said: “We have always felt that the (Belfast) City Airport is a fantastic airport.
“The location close to the centre of Belfast is unbeatable, and for that reason we will operate to Belfast City Airport ... long-term.”
He said he was “personally delighted” BA was back in Northern Ireland, and regretted its decision to pull out in 2001.
BA took over the city route from bmi after IAG bought the ailing airline in April. Mr Walsh said bmi had been a “chronic loss-making airline”, with “zero”
chance of the Belfast City link being saved without the takeover.
He said it was “deeply regrettable” that staff had lost their jobs, insisting more would have been lost without the takeover, and defended the redundancy packages offered to staff.
Mr Walsh, who has shares in Aer Lingus, dismissed the suggestion BA would pull out of the City Airport because of the Irish firm’s arrival.
Challenged by the DUP’s David Simpson on ticket costs, he added: “The average fare that we get is by no means excessive. We are operating in a competitive market.”
Kate Sherry of Ryanair and Paul Simmons of easyJet also gave evidence, with all three bosses pressing the case for scrapping APD. Ms Sherry said expanding into Northern Ireland was an “unattractive commercial proposition” because of APD.
In a dig at his rivals, Mr Simmons said: “We have a commitment to Northern Ireland — we have seen other airlines come and go.”