Ulster travellers deserve a fairer deal on airline duties
The disruption caused by Icelandic volcanic ash shows once again the importance of air travel to Northern Ireland.
We, as an island people, find little comfort in George Osborne's Budget decision to freeze existing air passenger duty rates which were raised again last November and currently cost an exorbitant £24 per return flight between here and British airports. The freeze only postpones another damaging hike until next year.
Isn't it ironic that Northern Ireland pays more prohibitive taxes for travel to Britain than does the Republic? Many countries, including the Republic and Holland, now realise air passenger duty was more trouble than it was worth and have reduced or abolished it altogether.
If I were living in Britain and wanted to visit the £100m Titanic complex, or enjoy Derry's City of Culture events, would I want to pay a minimum £24 entrance fee? If I were a British businessman would I feel incentivised to open a company in Northern Ireland?
Air passenger duty is an iniquitous tax. If ever Northern Ireland could argue a special case for exemption or reduction of this tax, it must be now.
This time next year, the £24 return flight charge is likely to increase to more than £30 - well beyond the current rate of inflation.
APD is an unacceptable tax on business travellers, holidaymakers, students and people generally who want to maintain links between Britain and Northern Ireland.
The tax on transatlantic flights from Aldergrove is a minimum £60, but has been abolished in the south - a country currently subsidised by the UK taxpayer, as Stormont Finance Minister Sammy Wilson pointed out at Westminster this month.
When I last drew attention to APD, Mr Wilson and the then Trade and Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, responded in a letter to this newspaper stating they had met the Treasury to argue a special case. Our MPs are rightly starting to ask more questions at Westminster. The new Executive ministers need to maintain such pressure.
The new Assembly and Executive should keep a vigilant eye on all aspects of air travel costs. Air passenger duty is a key issue, but the airlines and airports also need watching over add-on charges.
For example, can anyone other than easyJet attempt to justify a credit card charge of £12 for booking a single flight online? And how long will it be before the £1 charge for simply setting down or picking a passenger at Aldergrove is not subject to a further increase, or extended to George Best Belfast City Airport?
Wherever one looks in the world of air travel, attempts are being made to extract more money from the paying public. Travellers face a myriad of confusing charges beyond air passenger duties - from fuel surcharges to baggage charges, from car parking to online check-in fees for so-called 'administration'. Unfortunately, air travel is a captive marketplace. For many people there is really no alternative as, once again, we discovered last week, when the ferries were disrupted by gales. Northern Ireland is a very special case. Not before time, the Treasury and Government in London should recognise that - if not by reducing existing taxes, then certainly by ensuring that no more are applied.
Flying from Manchester airport recently, I attracted a nasty extra bill of £31.50 over my hand luggage. I've carried my battered red sports holdall on dozens of flights, but not until then had it caused a problem.
"Is this your hand luggage," inquired a Flybe attendant. "Would you mind placing it in the luggage rack?" Try I as did, I couldn't make it fit into the space. There were only a few centimetres in it, but that extra little measurement cost me £30 plus a £1.50 credit charge fee as my baggage was whisked away to the hold.
This annoying experience led me to check the hand baggage guidelines for various airlines. No wonder many thousands like myself end up in paying an extra bill for which we hadn't bargained.
For example, the acceptable height of hand luggage bags varies from 56cms (easyJet) to 55cm (Ryanair, bmi and Aer Lingus) to 50cm (Flybe).
The width ranges from 45cm (easyJet) to 40cms (Ryanair, bmi and Aer Lingus) to 35cm (Flybe).
The depth of luggage is from 25cm (easyJet) to 23cm (Flybe) to 20cm (Ryanair and Aer Lingus). And then, just to add to the confusion, a couple of smaller airlines - Logan Air (40cms by 35 by 18) and Aer Aran (43cms by 28 by 28) - have different rules again.
As the holiday season approaches, many more passengers will pay the price - as I did.
For the unfortunate traveller, it's an embarrassing and costly experience - for the airlines, a nice little earner.