Belfast Telegraph

Executive urged to boost air travel

Cutting duty on long haul flights from Northern Ireland is only the first leg of a journey toward making the region more competitive for air passengers, a tourism body has insisted.

After passing legislation to reduce the rate to zero, the Assembly should now turn its focus on taxes levied on domestic flights, the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said.

The cut in Air Passenger Duty (APD) came after powers to set the rate on direct long haul flights were devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive from Westminster. Assembly members voted through its final legislative stage on Tuesday, with the reduction set to come into effect at the start of January.

The move was prompted amid fears the region's only direct link to the USA - Continental's service from Belfast International to Newark - would be lost if the rate remained significantly higher than in the Republic of Ireland.

Doreen McKenzie welcomed the reduction but claimed it would only affect 1% of passengers in Northern Ireland. She said: "It's a good step in the right direction. We've dealt with 1% of the problem, now we need to look at the remaining 99%."

While the Executive applied for and was granted powers to set its own duty rate on direct long haul flights, the responsibility for levying domestic flights remains with the Treasury.

Ms McKenzie said the Executive should now press for those powers as well. Acknowledging that cutting domestic duty would result in a multimillion-pound slice off Northern Ireland's block grant, she called for more research to establish if extra tourism revenue generated would counterbalance or exceed the loss. "But we need to first get the powers to set the rate so that if there was a good case to reduce it we would not have to wait two years for more legislation to come through," she said.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson welcomed the reduction in the long haul rate and said it was "good news" for the economy.

"Direct airlinks facilitate local firms in doing business with customers outside the region, they are also vital for the local tourism industry and in attracting Foreign Direct Investment to Northern Ireland - both key to growing and rebalancing our economy," he said.

"Abolishing Air Passenger Duty on long haul flights will help to protect and improve our international air access and ensure the competitiveness of our airports. It will enable Northern Ireland to remain an attractive place to do business and I also hope that it will help secure flights to new long haul destinations."

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