Belfast Telegraph

EU under attack over ditching of New York flights

By John Mulgrew

The end of Northern Ireland's only transatlantic air route due to an EU block on bailout cash has been blasted as an "international embarrassment" by "unelected blinkered bureaucrats".

United Airlines is scrapping its Belfast International to New York flight in January. It was due to receive a £9m bailout - two-thirds of which was coming from the Executive - to retain the link.

However, the European Commission has blocked the funding package under State aid rules.

But others, including the Green Party leader Steven Agnew, criticised the decision to give cash to a multi-national airline as a "vanity project".

And economist Andrew Webb said that, while it is "unfortunate" United is pulling out, "there were questions over the value for money and the process that was used to try and support the route".

Belfast International Airport boss Graham Keddie said he blamed the EU and said the "abysmal" decision was "absolutely appalling", which was made by a "bunch of faceless bureaucrats".

"You could hardly get a worse example of process-driven madness," he said.

"To block a support package for an airline that delivers direct access to the United States is almost beyond comprehension."

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said it is "deeply regrettable that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels have effectively scuppered this important flight for Northern Ireland".

He said that "faced with the same circumstances again, I would make the same decisions".

Mr Hamilton said public money paid to United already "has been recouped with interest".

It is understood one objection was received by the EC in relation to the bailout.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said the decision further highlighted the EU's "blinkered attitude of bureaucracy".

"I don't think it's even a revenge attack by the EU, it's just typical of the EU, on their thinking and inflexible bureaucracy," he said.

Ulster Unionist economy spokesman Steve Aiken said the decision is an "international embarrassment".

"We need to know what checks were made with the European Union over State aid and who took the decision that it was not an issue," he said.

However, Steven Agnew said the "decision presents us with a huge opportunity, as the money can now be used on projects which have a much greater benefit on ordinary people's lives".

It is understood many of the New York flights were around 80% full.

Mr Keddie said the airport was already exploring "hot leads" in relation to finding a replacement airline to fly to New York.

Addressing the issue of State aid, Simon Hamilton said: "We were always aware of the potential of an issue around State aid compliance, but given the tight timescale to put a package of support in place, approval by the European Commission could not be sought in advance of agreeing a deal with United and it was our view, on balance, that given this was our only direct flight to the USA, State aid was not a factor."

Belfast Telegraph