Belfast Telegraph

Stormont 'is scared of abolishing £26 air tax'

By Claire McNeilly

The new boss of Belfast International Aiport (BIA) has accused Stormont politicians of lacking the ambition to abolish air tax on short-haul flights.

Graham Keddie also pointed the finger at Dublin Airport for spending "an absolute fortune" on marketing in Belfast which, he insisted, was primarily aimed at Northern Ireland's biggest airport.

And the recently-appointed BIA managing director admitted that the proposed new routes from Belfast to Canada and the United Arab Emirates would not be taking off in the foreseeable future.

Mr Keddle said Air Passenger Duty (APD), which levies £26 on domestic and European return flights, should be scrapped in order to give Northern Ireland a better chance of competing with Dublin - which he believes would love to put BIA out of business.

"The Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands saw the damage the tax was doing and got rid of it," he said.

"Scotland and Wales want to do the same. If Northern Ireland doesn't scrap it, we'll be in trouble because there are no trains or road links. To get anywhere you have to fly."

And he blamed Stormont's inaction on money fears and an absence of ambition.

"The politicians seem to be scared it'll eat into the block grant," he said. "There's also a lack of ambition and a lack of aspiration."

One of Mr Keddle's main tasks is to introduce more long-haul flights, something the International Airport has struggled to do.

BIA has only one transatlantic route - a New York/Newark service - which itself was only saved when APD on long-haul flights from Northern Ireland was scrapped in 2011.

Two new routes - to Toronto and Abu Dhabi - were supposed to be operational by the end of last year, but Mr Keddie conceded: "We certainly won't be getting them this year."

"We're still talking to a number of airlines and we have a number of potential leads. We know the market is there. But we're up against a state-supported, state-owned airport in Dublin, with all the backing of the Irish state, and that makes it much more difficult for us to compete in those markets."

BIA can't compete with the Republic, which has been offering airlines huge financial incentives.

"As far as Dublin is concerned, it's not a level playing field," said Mr Keddie.

"In November, they spent an absolute fortune on marketing in Belfast and - let's be honest about this - that's primarily targeted at us."

New figures from Dublin Airport Authority show a 52% growth in passengers from Northern Ireland. Indeed, last year, 864,000 individuals headed south, which is the equivalent of 1.7million return journeys.

But Mr Keddie said he was confident that BIA could withstand the firece competition from Dublin.

"We will always have a future because we're the second largest airport on the island of Ireland, both in passenger terms and in cargo terms," he said.

"We're the only category 3B airport on the island of Ireland, so we can operate in any weather, you can land in any visibility, just about.

"We have two runways. We have a cross runway - when the wind blows in Dublin in the wrong way the aircraft are piling in here. We're Ireland's safe haven."

He added: "I don't think they (Dublin) can put us out of business. I suspect they'd love to."

Regarding the rival George Best Belfast City Airport and its bid to overturn a "seats for sale" cap, which restricts its annual departure seat sales to two million, Mr Keddie said he didn't think that Northern Ireland would be better off economically if the current restriction was removed.

And he asked: "When was the last time City introduced a route which wasn't already served from the International?"

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