Given our peripheral location on the western edge of Europe we depend heavily on good air and sea links for both pleasure and business trips. But these links provide more than just alternative routes to and from the province. They also send a signal to investors and tourists that Northern Ireland is accessible and therefore it is imperative that we retain as many air and sea services as possible.
It is disappointing that United Airways is going to suspend what is the only direct flight from Belfast to America. The Newark service will go out of operation for nine weeks from January next year. It is part of cutbacks being implemented by the airline which will also affect flights to and from Manchester, Rome and Dublin. However, unlike Belfast, those airports will continue to have direct flights to the US during this period.
There may be sound business reasons for the airline's decisions – the number of passengers using the route on the first few months of the year is lower than at other times – but the value of the Belfast-Newark link is great. We look to the US for new investment and America has been a strong partner in the peace process and subsequent economic development here. Breaking this link, even for a short period of time, has great psychological as well as practical consequences.
It could also put off some US investors who would see the air link as more tenuous now. United Airways, it has to be accepted, has been a strong advocate of this route which has been going for around 10 years and has attracted some 850,000 passengers during that period.
Nowhere else will the impact of the suspension be felt as keenly as here, and not least by Belfast International Airport. Perhaps United could reconsider its decision – the savings surely can be recouped elsewhere in its operation – and send out the message that Northern Ireland is always open for business.