Belfast Telegraph

Loss of US flight would hit Northern Ireland economy

By Claire McNeilly

The loss of Northern Ireland’s only transatlantic flight could have a devastating impact on its economy, a major multi-national company has warned.

Northern Ireland-based pharmaceutical giant Almac said local politicians needed to do everything possible to secure the future of Continental Airlines' Belfast International to Newark service, which has been threatened by increases in UK aviation tax.

The company, whose global headquarters is in Craigavon, Co Armagh, says around 50 of its employees use the route each week, totalling more than 800 flights in a year.

It added that the Newark link helped influence its business strategy in the United States.

MLAs have been warned that the survival of Northern Ireland’s airports in general could be endangered if action on air passenger duty (APD) is not taken soon.

Stormont's Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy told the Assembly yesterday that ministerial colleagues, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, were lobbying hard at Whitehall for a cut in the tax, which has disadvantaged Northern Ireland airports in favour of their counterparts in the Republic.

Almac CEO Alan Armstrong said the transatlantic connection from Belfast has a major influence in the company's business plan.

“Continental’s daily service from Belfast to Newark played a significant role in helping us decide where to locate our new facility in North America,” said Mr Armstrong.

“The convenience of Belfast International Airport for our staff and customers, combined with the flight schedule and competitive pricing, have all made a valuable contribution to the expansion of our business.”

He added: “It is a remarkable fact that, from departing Newark Airport, you can be on our Craigavon site within seven hours.”

Almac employs more than 1,100 in the US, including 800 at its recently-opened North American HQ in Pennsylvania.

Mr Armstrong said that although much of its global business can be done via conference calls, the company still constantly needs to be able to move people around.

“In any one week we could have up to 50 people using Continental’s services and during the course of a year we estimate that over 800 journeys are made to and from the US by our staff, with a vast majority flying Continental,” he said.

“The withdrawal of this route would have a major impact on our business in terms of time lost travelling to Dublin or London, notwithstanding the additional cost implications that this would involve.

“In addition, we also welcome hundreds of American visitors to Almac in Craigavon who largely rely on the direct flight to Belfast.”

He called on local politicians to ensure they persuade the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Treasury to abolish the “punitive APD”.

“At this point, when Northern Ireland is doing its best to attract inward investment, loss of this service would be a major body blow to potential new companies thinking of setting up here,” insisted Mr Armstrong.

“We need to have a level playing field with the south of Ireland, which has already got rid of air passenger duty.”

Belfast Telegraph