Dublin soars away while we're grounded by taxes
It's crucial to Northern Ireland's economy that it keeps the daily transatlantic air bridge, says Uel Hoey
Every year, some 200,000 people leave Northern Ireland bound for Dublin Airport and its long-haul and transatlantic routes.
That figure would be closer to 300,000 if Belfast International Airport didn't have a transatlantic route of its own.
It isn't easy when you have a major competitor less than two hours down the road which is doing nothing for your economy other than taking away from it.
And it's even more difficult when you factor in Airport Passenger Duty (APD) which the Treasury introduced last November.
It means that, for a transatlantic route, you are paying £60 extra for an economy seat, as opposed to the mere €3 (£2.65) levied by Dublin.
The issue is unique with regard to Northern Ireland. Yes, the same tax applies to the likes of Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester.
But they're operating on the same landmass. If you're sitting in Glasgow, you can jump in a car, drive to Manchester and get a better deal - but you can't do that here.
Continental's Belfast to New York-Newark service carries around 100,000 two-way passengers a year.
Some 40-45% of those are Americans coming in. The benefit to the economy here is in the region of £20m a year.
But, if we get to the situation where we're losing these passengers to Dublin, that has to be detrimental to our economy.
If people visit Ireland for two weeks via Dublin, the best we can hope for is a day or two of their itinerary. But, if they come via Belfast International, we'll probably get a week-and-a-half.
The Executive must address this ridiculous disparity in airport tax between Belfast and Dublin. We want the five-fold charge which exists in Band B brought down to Band A level for all services operating from Northern Ireland.
At present, some 50,000 passengers a year are being charged £60 a time in APD. That's a mere £3m going to the Treasury.
We have spent tens of millions on Belfast International Airport over the past few years - including £10m on a revamped terminal building.
If you want a meaningful economic development plan for Northern Ireland, then air access plays a critical role in that.
It isn't a case of 'let's throw as many routes as we can at the wall and see how many of them stick'. It has to be targeted to see what routes are going to make a difference.
Our development plan has to say we're going to spend money through Tourism Ireland, through Invest NI; that we're going to go out and engage with the outside world.
Part of that requires us to be thinking: what does a route like New York - or Toronto, or Dubai - mean for us in practical and perception terms?
If the Executive genuinely wants to develop the economy here then we have to be competitive vis-a-vis Dublin. Losing a major carrier because of APD would render us uncompetitive for a long time.
To a large extent, the game would be lost. It would mean that Belfast International Airport and Northern Ireland's other two airports would be fighting for a small amount of short-haul activity, which we're all currently competing over anyway.