Belfast airport says Norwegian Air decision to axe US flights 'moronic'
A decision by airline Norwegian Air to withdraw its flights from Belfast to the New York and Boston areas is "a major economic blow for Northern Ireland", politicians have warned.
The warning came after the airline revealed its last flights on the route will be on October 27 and blamed a lack of demand.
In a statement, the company advised that customers in Northern Ireland can still fly to the US via Dublin, Shannon and Cork, with up to 33 weekly departures.
In a scathing response, Belfast International Airport accused the airline of "moronically channelling much greater levels of Northern Ireland passengers onto Dublin flights".
A spokesperson said that it was "extremely disappointed" by Norwegian's decision to leave the Northern Ireland market, but added that the schedule of two flights per week from Belfast was "neither flexible nor attractive enough to appeal to the local travelling public".
She added: "Regrettably the limited and inferior product offered by Norwegian was creating awareness within the market, but moronically channelling much greater levels of Northern Ireland passengers onto Dublin flights (where the airline were offering flexible two daily services, rather than the limited two weekly product from Belfast).
"Hardly a conducive outcome for Belfast and Northern Ireland economically or socially.
"It is an unsustainable situation that two million people in our catchment area should be left with no option but to undertake lengthy and unnecessary journeys to Dublin in order to fly across the Atlantic."
Norwegian did not wish to respond to the airport's criticism.
Alliance MLA John Blair said the move highlighted the need to reduce Air Passenger Duty here (APD). He stated: "This is a disappointing move that has the potential to be a major economic blow for Northern Ireland.
"To lose a direct air route between Northern Ireland and the United States is a setback for businesses, as well as tourists.
"I know huge efforts have been made by the International Airport to improve services and the number of flights there, and I commend them for that.
"Undoubtedly, one major factor impacting Belfast International Airport's ability to compete is air passenger duty.
"Air transport here already faces challenges due to geography, so air passenger duty even further disproportionately affects the airport and others. If it was removed or reduced, it could see airlines return services and travellers facing fewer costs."
UUP finance spokesperson and South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken said he was "extremely disappointed" at the news, and called for the abolition of APD.
Alluding to Norwegian's decision to also withdraw its transatlantic routes from Edinburgh, he stated: "It is no coincidence that flights from Edinburgh to the US will also cease (in March 2019), whilst flights from Dublin will continue.
"It simply underlines the importance of abolishing APD and the need to improve connectivity and infrastructure to Belfast International Airport, in order to secure some kind of level playing field when it comes to competing with state subsidised airports in the Republic."
SDLP business spokesman Pat Catney said: "It is extremely worrying that the North will no longer have scheduled flights to the United States, particularly during the ongoing uncertainty and chaos surrounding Brexit.
"The odds are already stacked against us with the obvious attraction of Dublin's visa pre-clearance facility. This is a time when we should be seeking to expand our global reach, especially for our tourism and hospitality sector."
Norwegian announced routes from Aldergrove to the US in February 2017, with flights beginning that July from as little as £69.