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Emergency talks in bid to protect Northern Ireland’s threatened US air link

Intensive talks are taking place between a major airline and Government officials to retain Northern Ireland’s only regular direct air link to the USA, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The news comes amid fears that United Continental, which operates a daily service from Belfast-New York (Newark), could pull out of the local market unless the recent hikes in aviation taxes are revoked.

United Continental said yesterday it would be inappropriate to comment on speculation surrounding the future of the route.

However, a Belfast International Airport spokeswoman last night said the matter was being addressed as a matter of urgency.

“The level of UK Government Air Travel Tax (APD) applied to services from Belfast is an issue, particularly for long haul flights,” she said.

“However, intensive efforts are ongoing to successfully address this matter, in conjunction with Government and all other key stakeholders.”

It is well-known in the local airline industry that the American carrier is deeply unhappy as APD has added an extra £60 per passenger onto the cost of the Belfast to New York fare.

Dublin passenger taxes are a mere €3 (£2.60) per person for the same service, as the Republic attempts to benefit from the fallout of the APD rates introduced in the UK.

Stormont ministers have been working tirelessly to try and find a solution to the problem — particularly as an APD exemption is already in place at one of Scotland’s airports.

The DUP MLA Jeffrey Donaldson, who has been in contact with the airport about the issue, has said that an immediate intervention is needed.

“This is our only direct connection with America and it will be a devastating blow for the economy if the Government doesn’t step in,” he said.

Sources have indicated that there is some hope the authorities will take action to help preserve the route from Belfast International Airport.

Mukesh Sharma, managing director of Belfast-based McNeill and Thriftway Travel Group, said if United Continental pulled out, it would spell economic disaster.

It is understood that United Continental’s route planning department is currently reviewing every route across the Atlantic.

Industry insiders have said that Belfast is particularly at risk because it is already making a loss.

Belfast Telegraph