Fears over future of Northern Ireland's only direct air link to the US after suspension for three months
Fears have been raised about the future of Northern Ireland's only direct air link to the US after a decision to shelve it for almost three months.
The suspension of the service from Belfast International to Newark Liberty International is to come into effect from January until March next year.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, who chairs the Assembly's Enterprise Committee, said: "The big concern would be that once the route is suspended it may not be reinstated at all."
United Airlines did not return a request yesterday for confirmation that it was committed to the route in the long-term.
The news came as part of an announcement by the major US carrier that it was also to cut routes from Rome to Newark and Dublin, and Manchester to Washington.
The Northern Ireland service only recently celebrated its ninth anniversary and to date has carried 830,000 passengers between Belfast and America.
Just last month, on May 29, the airline issued a statement stating it was “pleased with the success” of the service which was established in 2005.
Mr McGlone has now called for assurances about whether the route would return.
“We need the company to come out now and provide a guarantee or assurance that it will be reinstated.
“It is deeply worrying and it really isn't good for Northern Ireland at all.” CBI Northern Ireland Director Nigel Smyth said the move was a blow to trade, investment and tourism alike.
“The reports that United Airlines is suspending its Belfast-Newark route between January and March next year is clearly disappointing.
“This is a strategically important route for Northern Ireland from a trade, investment and tourism perspective.
“The loss of this route even for a three-month period would be a serious setback as we work to improve our global connectivity,” he said.
The news of the route’s shelving — from January 1 next year until March 11, returning in time for the annual St Patrick’s weekend exodus — has been met with dismay.
In a statement from Belfast International Airport, a spokesman it was “naturally disappointed” at the news.
“It is one of four European airports to be affected by this tempo
rary measure. We have been kept fully informed by United, who assure us that it is their intention to resume normal service on the Belfast-Newark route from March 11 next year.
“Taken in the round, this is a successful route for United but performance is not traditionally as strong in the first couple of months of the year.”
Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster said: “While today's announcement by United of a temporary suspension during what is a quiet travel time from January to March is disappointing, the company has given an assurance that the route is secure.
“This is an important service for the economy, both in terms of business and tourism, which is why the Executive successfully lobbied Westminster to abolish air passenger duty on long-haul routes from Northern Ireland — including the Newark service — from January 2013.”
California-born businessman Ted Jensen of Big Ted’s American Cookies has lived in Northern Ireland for more than 20 years and makes frequent trips across the Atlantic. He said: “I have used that Belfast to Newark route a number of times because it’s quite convenient.
“Having that route changes Belfast from an outpost to a destination — but losing it, even temporarily, means it goes back to being an outpost. It's not good from the point of view of the attitude America has towards Belfast.”