Paterson should act to cut sky-high air passenger duty
The other day I booked two supposedly free transatlantic flights using my air miles. Free though the actual flights were, I still found myself with a bill for £560 because there is no escape from the iniquitous add-on fees and taxes associated with air travel today.
It's an issue which is particularly damaging to Northern Ireland and since I raised it in this column last year, further worrying developments have emerged.
The British Airports Authority (BAA) is planning a 50% increase in charges at Heathrow airport from April 1. A measure of the impact is that one million passengers to and from Northern Ireland will use that airport this year flying with Bmi and Aer Lingus.
BAA, which owns Heathrow, operates under the motto 'Making every journey better'. Perhaps that should be revised to 'Making every journey dearer'.
Our MPs and MLAs have done little or nothing over the years on the issue of air taxes and charges. Maybe it's the fact that MPs enjoy free air travel from their constituencies to Westminster, but surely a voice or two among them needs to be raised in protest on our behalf.
Northern Ireland should have had a dispensation when Kenneth Clarke, the then Tory Chancellor, first introduced air passenger duty in 1995.
The charges have risen 1,600% over the years, including another 9% two months ago - a distinctly unfair imposition on this province in particular.
While we are paying more and more, other countries - including our neighbours down south - are reducing and even abolishing air passenger duty.
Brian Lenihan, the Irish government's minister for finance has acknowledged "calls for the abolition of the tax, which is blamed for the reduction in visitor numbers".
From March 1, the Republic's air travel tax is reduced to only €3 (from €10), while we in Northern Ireland are paying more than 400% more per journey.
This is surely an issue for Secretary of State Owen Paterson, who needs to find ways to stimulate our desperately ailing economy.
BAA must not be allowed to increase its charge at Heathrow from £13 to £20, nor should passengers to and from Northern Ireland face the same levels of Government-imposed air passenger duty as the rest of the UK.
I hope Mr Paterson is making a convincing case to the Treasury on Northern Ireland's behalf.
Bmi, which operates the important Belfast-Heathrow route, wants MPs and the media to campaign against the increases as, I note, is already happening in the Scotland Assembly.
The Bmi chief, Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, says: "The 50% increase is unfair discrimination against domestic passengers. We firmly believe that BAA's price rises will damage the growth of the economy between London and Northern Ireland."
The Consumer Council NI estimates the new Heathrow charges could cost passengers here an extra £2.1m annually.
It says: "The recent increases in UK duty and the proposed increases in the Heathrow charges will potentially serve to encourage greater numbers of passengers to travel to GB via airports in the Republic of Ireland, damaging the Northern Ireland economy."
How much is business and commerce suffering and what is the effect on much-needed tourist revenue? Other countries are concerned, so why isn't Stormont even raising an eyebrow?
The UK Government is helping out the Republic's economy and, at the same time, charging people who pass through our airports 400% more in air duty than the Irish government is prepared to accept for Dublin airport.
A £12-per-flight tax here, against €3 in the Republic, means air travel on this island is not operating on a level landing strip.
It is unacceptable that basic duty and airport charges on the Belfast-London route add more than £50 for a return journey on top of the actual flights fares.
The Stormont Executive and the Secretary of State should be acting together now to stop the Heathrow increase, to review the huge disadvantage Northern Ireland airports have in relation to Dublin and to examine ways and means of offering the five million passengers in and out of this province each year some special dispensation on taxes.
Never mind reducing car fuel tax for remote rural areas of the UK; an even stronger case can be made for air travel - especially to a region cut off by sea and where flying is such an essential means of transport.