Belfast Telegraph

United scrapping Belfast to New York flight after EU blocks bailout

By John Mulgrew

Belfast's direct flight to New York is being scrapped after the EU rejected a multi-million pound bailout, it has emerged.

United flies direct from Belfast to New York's Newark airport.

It was due to receive around £9m to keep the route, part-funded by Stormont.

But Belfast International Airport says the European Commission has now blocked that bailout, and the airline will put out in January.

The airport says it "defies logic and is an example of abysmal Brussels decision-making".

"You could hardly get a worse example of process-driven madness. To block a support package for an airline that delivers direct access to the United States is almost beyond comprehension.

“This is a vital link for business and losing it will be a body blow to Executive Ministers who use it to promote Northern Ireland to would-be investors from the United States.

“The adverse impact is all the greater, coming as it does ahead of the crucial decision to make Northern Ireland more competitive with reduced corporation tax designed to stimulate inward investment."

In 2011, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that the New York/Newark service has been saved from the chop, after APD on long-haul flights from Northern Ireland was scrapped.

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

"(Economy Minister) Simon Hamilton must make a statement today as we need to know how this happened.

"We will be pursuing this by all available means, including by submitting an Urgent Oral Question to the Assembly for Monday morning.  The Minister and his Department have questions to answer over how this was allowed to happen.

“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?

“This is a huge blow to our international standing and the Minister must tell us what he intends to do to sort it out."

But Green Party leader Steven Agnew MLA said: “I have consistently challenged the Minister for Economy to reveal the evidence that he used in deciding to allocate this money to United Airlines in the first place. Every time he has been unable to give a satisfactory answer. Now that he has also been knocked back by the European Union, it is evident that he didn’t even bother to check whether he was allowed to do it, let alone complete an economic appraisal for it.

“Maybe in future the Minister will consider the need for proper due process to ensure that money is being spent on things that it can actually be spent on, and that will actually have a benefit to society as a whole.

“This decision presents us with a huge opportunity, as the money can now be used on other projects which have a much greater benefit on ordinary people’s lives. Proposing to give the money to a large multinational airline was a vanity project from the very start, and it has now been shown to break the rules too.

“A few people may be slightly inconvenienced by having to travel a few hours down to Dublin to get a flight to New York; but if the money is now spent on better public services for everybody, such as early years’ education provision, I’m sure far more people will be happy and the money will go a lot further in the long run.”

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary said Stormont was "throwing good money after bad" by bailing out Northern Ireland's direct flight to New York.

"If it were going to encourage United to commit here for a 10-year period it would fine," Mr O'Leary said.

"But you are essentially paying about £160 for every return ticket on that route, and the minute the Government here decides, 'Look, we can't keep subsidising this', United is going to cut the route.

"They acted on APD on the transatlantic routes. But then they throw more good money after bad - they subsidise."

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said: "The loss of an important airline connection to the US as a result of impertinent interference in our economic decisions by the EU reinforces the importance of removing ourselves from this anti- business, job destroying, arrangement.

"Once again the bunch of unelected burueacratic busybodies in Brussels have shown that they attach more importance to their rule book than they do to the jobs of people in places like Northern Ireland.

"Make no mistake about it this decision will have serious consequences for our business connections, ability to attract investment from America and our tourist industry and reinforces Dublin’s monopoly on the trans- Atlantic airline market. Indeed it would be interesting to find out if representations from Dublin played any part in this decision because anti -competitive lobbying is another feature of the EU.

"This interference in our economic decision reinforces the need to exit the EU completely with no ties remaining as quickly as possible. It once again illustrates the claim which we have been making throughout the debate on EU membership that only by having control of our own decisions can we ensure that the best decisions are made for our country."

Belfast Telegraph Digital