Belfast Telegraph

Crunch talks on US air route

By Claire McNeilly

The First Minister and his Deputy have held crunch talks with chiefs at Continental Airlines amid fears the US carrier is going to pull out of Ulster.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness met the airline’s bosses at their Chicago headquarters on Thursday as concern heightens that we may lose our only transatlantic route.

The Belfast Telegraph understands the contentious issue of air passenger duty (APD) has reached a critical point as Continental is in its autumn planning cycle.

In other words, the airline is now likely to be deciding whether or not to continue with the Belfast to New York (Newark) service — on which it is making a massive loss. The politicians did their utmost to impinge upon officials at Continental how important the route is for the local economy.

In February this newspaper highlighted difficulties with the route because of tax hikes introduced by the Treasury.

As it stands, a levy of £60 — which is currently being absorbed by Continental — is being imposed on each US-bound passenger travelling from Belfast compared to just €3 from Dublin.

Earlier this week Northern Ireland’s business elite sent an open letter to the UK Chancellor asking

for an early decision on APD. Executives from more than 20 companies have told George Osborne that losing the route will sound the death-knell on the province’s economic recovery.

Bro McFerran, managing director of Allstate, which is the second largest US employer in Northern Ireland, told of his fears for his firm if the issue is not resolved.

“We’re going to have to pay more for the links, it’s going to take more time to get there and it’s going to discourage some of our potential customers from coming over to see us, he said. “Therefore we’re less likely to get so much business in the future.”

A consultation aimed at examining existing air tariffs closed in June and a Government response is expected in November. But the local business community wants action now before it is too late.

Barrhead Travel MD Edel Doherty is one of the US airline’s largest customers and is therefore hugely affected by APD.

She said: “If APD doesn’t change, it will be a devastating blow for Northern Ireland’s economy.

“We’re not only going to lose the Continental service, but it’s going to put off other airlines from establishing new routes out of here.

“I’ve been in the travel industry for 28 years and airlines that have pulled routes have never come back. APD makes the South of Ireland much more attractive.”

Belfast Telegraph