Belfast air route to US 'faces axe' within a year
Northern Ireland's only flight to the United States could be axed within a year because high taxes mean it is struggling to compete with Dublin, airline bosses signalled last night.
Continental Airlines is expected to take a £3.2m hit by the end of the year because it is stumping up the cost of Air Passenger Duty (APD) instead of passing it on to customers.
It is the equivalent of the first seven weeks of revenue from the flight going straight to the Treasury, a situation that cannot go on "indefinitely", the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was told.
The levy works out at around an extra £60 on the price of an average ticket, but the rate on flights from Dublin is just €3.
That makes it an extra £240 on the cost of flying out of Belfast for a family of four - 20 times as much as it does when jetting off from the Republic.
Bob Schumacher of Continental Airlines said: "We are committed to the service but we constantly see this leak out of our pockets."
He added that if APD remained at its current rate, the airline would soon approach the cusp of saying "enough was enough".
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley jnr pressed the committee on a timeline and asked whether it would be fair to say the airline would be beyond that cusp in a year's time. Mr Schumacher replied: "It's more immediate than that." He insisted there were "no plans" to shut down the service and flights were scheduled until at least Christmas.
But global events such as rising oil prices and natural disasters could heap pressure on the struggling route, Mr Schumacher warned as he urged the Government to take "urgent" action.
He said anyone living in Belfast or further south would opt to travel from the Republic if they had to pay the higher APD rate here.
The air link to Newark, which began in 2005, carries around 100,000 passengers annually. The route is estimated to be worth around £20m a year to the Northern Ireland economy and is a key business and tourist link. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is investigating the practicalities of devolving the power to set Air Passenger Duty to Stormont.