The Westminster Government has boosted hopes of retaining Belfast’s crucial air links with London Heathrow.
The coalition’s new aviation blueprint, unveiled yesterday, outlines the UK’s determination to push for vital landing slots to be reserved for regional links.
Fears have been raised about the future of the connections between Belfast and Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, since the takeover of bmi by British Airways this year.
Unveiling a new Aviation Policy Framework, Transport Secretary Justine Greening singled out Northern Ireland as somewhere that needed to remain connected to Heathrow. She told MPs the UK was lobbying Brussels, which controls the allocation of landing slots, to protect “UK regional connectivity”.
A shake-up of the EU laws should be used to set in stone measures for regional routes, she said, “such as protecting the provision of air services between Northern Ireland and Heathrow”.
Ministers have lobbied BA boss Willie Walsh over the Belfast link, but have admitted they are unable to guarantee its future.
The Commons Northern Ireland Affairs committee is currently carrying out an investigation into Ulster’s air links. With no way of reaching the rest of the UK by road or rail, flights are of critical importance to the local economy. According to the NI Chamber of Commerce, aviation supports £1bn of exports from Northern Ireland, while Heathrow directly supports 1,000 tourism jobs and 900 airport jobs in Northern Ireland.
Yesterday Ms Greening said the Government was “minded to support” devolved administrations that wanted to impose orders to protect services between UK airports and London, as long as they complied with EU law.
A public service order enables airport slots to be ring-fenced so that an airline cannot use them for another route, she said.
The Government also announced measures to attempt to improve efficiency at the UK’s borders and a further liberalisation of the UK aviation market to encourage foreign airlines to develop routes from airports other than Heathrow.
There were also proposals on cutting aviation emissions and charging higher landing fees for noisier aircraft.
But an eagerly-awaited consultation on future UK airport capacity needs was postponed.
Ms Greening said the consultation would be put back to “later this year”, amid reports that the Westminster Government is divided over possible plans to build new airports or expand existing ones, and that this has led to the consultation delay.
A “call for evidence” on how to maintain the UK's international connectivity and hub status was to have been published alongside the aviation policy framework document.
Airlines, airports and big business reacted with dismay to the postponement of the consultation, with the British Air Transport Association saying the Government “cannot keep on kicking this issue into the long grass while our competitors gain at our expense”.