Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Ed Curran: The great ‘no frills’ air fare rip-off is costing us dearly

The row over the runway extension at George Best Belfast City Airport angered Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary

Christmas is coming and the airlines’ goose is getting fat. The fares from Britain to Belfast over the forthcoming holiday period are enough to dampen anyone’s festive spirit.

It appears to be bonanza time for the airlines operating the London-to-Belfast route, with a captive market in their sights and seemingly no limit on what they wish to charge.

My internet survey of air fares last week, on the days running up to and just after Christmas, was a real eye-opener. I would sum up the prices quoted — with nearly three weeks still to go to Christmas Day — in two words: shocking and exorbitant.

For example, how about a £278 one-way economy fare from Gatwick to Belfast — and that’s before you add on luggage and any credit card payment?

No doubt the airlines will claim that bargain fares were available if travellers booked early. Sadly, it’s already too late — judging by the prices quoted now.

The business community is waking up to the rising costs and not before time. The local CBI said last week that the soaring cost of air travel was hitting local industry and commerce.

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, has labelled the November 1 increase in air passenger duty (now £24 return from London to Belfast) a “disgrace” and said it would do more harm to industry than it would benefit the UK Exchequer.

The Daily Telegraph is urging people to sign a petition against the hikes, yet I see little or no sign of interest from our Stormont MLAs or our MPs (who benefit from free travel to Westminster).

Other European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have reviewed, reduced or withdrawn passenger charges, which they concluded were only harming their economies.

Of immediate concern for thousands of families is the great Christmas homecoming. Students and offspring living across the water will be counting the cost of the exiles’ return this year.

If they haven’t booked by now, they are facing a bill of £300 to £400 and more for a return flight from London to Belfast.

I have argued before in this column that Northern Ireland should be treated as a special case in relation to air taxes and fees.

Regrettably, our public representatives show no interest and the additional cost of air travel, above and beyond the actual fares charged, continues to increase.

For example, I found what appeared to be a reasonably priced £61.99 afternoon flight from Gatwick to Belfast has £66 of extra charges heaped on the bill.

The pricing structure has become one of life’s great mysteries with taxes added, reduced or withdrawn from fares as a marketing ploy.

The manipulation of taxes and surcharges appears unregulated and confusing. Some airlines operate their fare structures and additional charges as if they were pub-owners offering Happy Hour discounts on drinks.

I fear we are also rueing the day when Michael O’Leary took the huff and withdrew his Ryanair services from Belfast. Other airlines may have introduced extra flights, but a competitive edge has gone from the market and |we appear to be paying an additional price.

And what are we to make of the ongoing battle between George Best Belfast City and Belfast International airports for airline business? Is this really in the best interests of Northern Ireland, with airlines moving from one airport to the other, like some bizarre game of musical chairs played out in the skies above us?

The more this rivalry intensifies, the more the Executive should ask whether it is in the best interests of business and commerce or the ordinary day-to-day paying traveller.

It’s a pity that half the energy channelled into the campaign against extending the City Airport runway was not directed at restraining fares, taxes and parking fees — not least the iniquitous £1 set-down and pick-up charge which was introduced at Aldergrove earlier this year.

Air passenger duty. Airport fees. Car parking. Credit card payments. Additional luggage costs. And £200-plus one-way flights on the London route.

Isn’t it time we — the paying public — called foul, especially as air travel is such an essential component of life with Northern Ireland having no land frontier with the rest of the UK?

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Stormont Speaker Willie Hay is to be commended for reading the Riot Act about the neglectful behaviour of some MLAs. They are wasting public funds by failing to turn up in the Assembly chamber when their names are called at question time.

Absence from work without good reason is a disciplinary matter in business and commerce. It should be no different with our public representatives at Stormont.

The offenders are making their own case for reducing the number of MLAs by at least a quarter — if not more.

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