Family of tot who needs treatment in US devastated at loss of Belfast air link
A Co Tyrone woman who travels to the US for special treatment for her infant son's health condition has said she is "absolutely gutted" over the end of the Belfast to Newark air route.
Charlie Ferris, from Ballinderry, makes the journey to Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia with mum Donna and dad Jody every eight weeks.
Taking the flight from Belfast International Airport can mean a saving of as much as £1,500 compared to other routes.
The 15-month-old suffers from infantile scoliosis, which if not treated properly means his spine could become severely twisted, leading to breathing problems and decreased life expectancy.
Donna said she was devastated to learn about the decision to withdraw the route after a £9m Stormont funding package to United Airlines was deemed in breach of European Commission rules.
The US route was described by the Belfast International managing director Graham Keddie as a "vital link".
Charlie's plight moved many people, including tragic road racer Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, who helped the family raise money for the little boy's treatment. He posed with a teddy bear for a fundraising photo just 48 hours before dying in a crash at the North West 200 earlier this year.
Mr Keddie said: "To block a support package for an airline that delivers direct access to the US is almost beyond comprehension.
"We have worked tirelessly to safeguard the service, but Brussels took a different view, believing the support package gave United an unfair advantage over services from elsewhere.
"The package in no way competes or conflicts with competitors within the UK."
Mrs Ferris told of her shock. "I was absolutely gutted," she said. "We chose the route because it was the cheapest option for us. We had good flight times for Charlie and it meant we weren't getting up at ridiculous hours.
"Because Charlie wasn't out of his routine and was able to sleep on the plane, it meant everything worked so smoothly for us, even down to picking up our hire car and driving to Philadelphia. It all worked out so much better for us as a family, as opposed to making the flight from Dublin."
Charlie is responding well to treatment, but the family still face a long and arduous journey over the coming months and years, with additional costs now added to their problems.
"Our next trip out will be on November 30 and I am feeling anxious about it because, on this occasion, due to the date and time of Charlie's appointment, we had no other option but to fly from Dublin," Donna explained. "I have seen the difference in cost from Belfast to Dublin airports being as much as £1,500, so when I heard the news about the Newark flight I was devastated because I thought the route was safe for the foreseeable future due to the funding package. Now that we are going to have to use a different route, we don't know how Charlie will cope with that.
"With the flights and car hire, each trip usually costs around £3,000, and it's heartbreaking for our other children every time we have to leave them behind."
As part of an initiative with Shriners Hospital, the family bring gift bags with them for children receiving treatment there. Details of how to send a bag can be found on Donna's Facebook page, Charlie's Journey with Infantile Scoliosis.
The Ferris family have set up a fundraising appeal to help with travel and associated costs, which can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/25pt3jg