The UK government should introduce a six-month holiday from air passenger duty to help ensure Northern Ireland's long-term air connectivity following the Covid-19 pandemic, the Economy Minister has said.
Diane Dodds spoke as the UK government and Stormont announced a £5.7m package to maintain air links to London as concerns grow about the province's future connectivity.
The Belfast route is provided by Aer Lingus while the Derry route is flown by Loganair. But both routes have been hit by falling passenger numbers since the pandemic stopped travel for business and for leisure.
It comes as economist Andrew Webb of business advisory firm Grant Thornton said he was concerned in the long-term about Northern Ireland's attractiveness as a hub for airlines.
He said the future requirements for social distancing on aeroplanes will reduce their load factor and the profitability of certain routes, which could risk some routes from Northern Ireland being sacrificed by carriers.
Announcing the £5.7m package of support yesterday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: "Maintaining air links between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is vital. We must ensure that critical workers can continue to fly over the Irish Sea, and today's investment in these lifeline services guarantees that."
The department said the links to London from City of Derry Airport and Belfast were "lifeline" services. It said the London route from Belfast would have been at risk due to low passengers without financial assistance.
Loganair is to receive an increased subsidy for operating the Derry to London route. Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said she was "delighted" that the support had been agreed.
"Our airports have been badly affected by the dramatic drop in passenger numbers but, like me, they recognise the need to keep our islands connected," she said.
Diane Dodds said her officials had worked with colleagues from the infrastructure and finance departments on securing the support.
But she said further help was needed and that she had asked the UK government to introduce a six-month holiday from APD, which is levied at £26 per passenger.
"It has a particularly detrimental impact on Northern Ireland, due to our physical remoteness to mainland Great Britain."