APD is putting Northern Ireland airports at risk
The survival of Northern Ireland airports could be endangered if action on passenger duty is not taken, MLAs have been warned.
An all-Ireland strategy should be developed to ensure a harmonised approach to air travel is implemented across the island and regional airports north of the border are protected, Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin told the Assembly at the start of its new term.
The discussion came as the Belfast Telegraph's Political Editor Liam Clarke issued some advice for our politicians (below).
With duty on air travel significantly higher in the UK than in the Republic, many people in Northern Ireland are opting to use Dublin Airport for their flights.
Mr McLaughlin highlighted the threat posed by air passenger duty (APD) as he called on Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy to adopt an all-Ireland aviation strategy. The Department of Transport in London is drawing up a revised aviation strategy for the whole of the UK.
"I am sure the minister is as aware as everyone is in this house of the very real challenges that the air passenger duty imposes on our regional airports," Mr McLaughlin said during ministerial question time at Stormont. "I would ask the minister if he would reflect that it would be very much in the interests of our regional airports, not just to their development but to their very survival, if air passenger duty could be included in the context of an updated aviation strategy, and perhaps he would rethink his approach."
Mr Kennedy had earlier indicated he was not in favour of an all-Ireland strategy and encouraged stakeholders to contribute to a public consultation on the revised UK strategy.
The Ulster Unionist stressed that APD was a reserved taxation issue but said ministerial colleagues were lobbying hard at Whitehall for a cut in the levy.
In reply to the Sinn Fein MLA, he said: "I don't share his enthusiasm for an all-island approach at this point.
"I think we would be sensible to wait for the outcome of the present consultation by the Department of Transport in London, seek to influence that and then bring things forward at that point." The SDLP's Joe Byrne also backed an island-wide approach to the duty. He said: "Would the minister accept that there has been a gross distortion to air passenger traffic through Northern Ireland airports over recent times because of the air passenger tax, and given that we have two Irish aviation companies, both Ryanair and Aer Lingus, operating out of the Northern Ireland airports, would it not make sense that some moves were done to try to have an alignment with what is happening in the North and in the Republic so we are not at a continued economic disadvantage?"
Mr Kennedy acknowledged the issue and stressed colleagues were making London aware of the problem. "I understand its implications, and they are fairly potentially serious implications, but I am aware that Executive colleagues, including the First and Deputy First Ministers and other Executive ministers, are making active representatives to find a resolution to that," he said.
The DUP's Gregory Campbell welcomed the minister's rejection of an all-Ireland approach and said more focus should be placed on a strategy taking in areas in Scotland such as Ayrshire and Strathclyde.
The Green Party's Steven Agnew said whatever the strategy was called it should pay due regard to people living close to airports and under flight paths.