Belfast Telegraph

Claire McNeilly: Airlines may not be only businesses to take flight

Richard Ramsey
Richard Ramsey
Ian Paisley
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

It could be the final call for businesses holding a one-way ticket out of here. Just this week economist Richard Ramsey claimed that the Northern Ireland economy was already in recession and Stephen Kelly, head of Manufacturing NI, said members were seeing "a significant contraction across the entire sector".

Those gloomy forecasts followed on from a summer in which we faced the most expensive holidays abroad in decades because of the falling pound.

The chances of avoiding some sort of border on the island of Ireland appear to be receding daily, with the cost of everyday essentials, like basic foodstuffs, likely to soar.

And yesterday came the shock news that both Belfast airports were losing routes to the rest of the UK and abroad.

It provoked outrage from various quarters, including the DUP MP Ian Paisley.

He accused Tourism Ireland - the cross-border body responsible for marketing the "island of Ireland" overseas - of bias in its focus to promote Dublin ahead of Belfast, a claim which it was strenuously denied.

But is the flight of Aer Lingus and Ryanair really such a shock?

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There is no denying that the imposition of the contentious Air Passenger Duty (APD) - a tax (of up to £26) which is levied on passengers from UK airports and is cited by Ryanair as a reason for dropping its Manchester, Berlin and Lanzarote services from Belfast International Airport - doesn't help.

Indeed, five years ago this newspaper was at the forefront of a successful campaign to save our international airport's only long-haul route, to New York/Newark, but it was ultimately a pyrrhic victory. We won that fight but lost the war when United Airlines pulled the plug two years later.

To lay the blame solely at APD's door is to miss the bigger picture - that, post-Brexit, Belfast is set to become an ever costlier, riskier base for doing business.

With Aer Lingus cutting flights from Belfast City Airport to Faro and Malaga, after a commercial review found those routes were not performing in line with expectations, bargain hunters can kiss goodbye to competition on key routes to Spain and Portugal and say 'hola' to higher prices.

You can also forget last minute hop-ons because cheap winter getaways to the Canaries and cultural trips to cities in Germany and elsewhere will become a thing of the past.

In Northern Ireland, where the minimum wage is lower than the UK average, and the cost of living is consistently higher - and going up all the time - holidays abroad will become a luxury fewer and fewer of us can afford.

We can only hope the loss of the routes highlighted this week doesn't mark the beginning of a mass exodus to a place 100 miles down the road - home of Aer Lingus and Ryanair - which doesn't have APD but has two terminals, more than 30m annual passengers, over 200 destinations to 43 countries and caters for no fewer than 47 different airlines.

At the minute, the only exodus we are witnessing here is from the carriers.

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