£9m on an air route is dubious at best

I have long been an advocate of direct air routes from Belfast to enhance economic connections and thus give us the means of promoting export routes and inward investment. Thus, I reckoned the reduction in Air Passenger Duty for Northern Ireland, despite the often unmentioned cost of £2.4m annually from other devolved public services, was on balance a worthwhile risk to maintain one such direct link to Newark. If it was true that the route is inevitably loss-making, however, that risk would fail.

However it now appears that United Airlines, the operator of the route, has returned to the Executive for another £9m bail-out. This demonstrates that indeed the route is inevitably loss-making. This is no longer a “risk” – it is a constant direct subsidy from the Northern Ireland rate-payer to an American airline.

I for one am unconvinced that we pay our taxes and rates to subsidise an American airline to fly here, when very few people use the route (I last used it in 2005; my next flight to North America is ex-Dublin because it offers more routes at more times). A still bigger issue, perhaps, is it demonstrates the Executive’s inevitable short-termism, and its inability to be pro-active.

The Executive is, not for the first time, answering the question in the wrong order. The question is not “How can we maintain an air route to Belfast to boost our economy?”, but rather “How can we boost our economy to maintain an air route to Belfast?”

In other words, the real issue is why is it that an air route from New York to Belfast is not profit-making? I would suggest it is a combination of how little business is actually done in Belfast, and how easy it is to fly to Dublin (barely an hour away from the southern outskirts of Greater Belfast now anyway).

This goes beyond the obvious transport issues – Dublin’s growth as a European hub airport; the nonsense of a city the size of Belfast having two airports; the lack of proper road and rail connections to either of those airports; etc.

It is in fact a more fundamental issue that Belfast (and Northern Ireland in general) is not worth coming to economically. And remember, this is the same Executive taking money out of skills…


6 thoughts on “£9m on an air route is dubious at best

  1. Martin says:

    I used the route last month because it was cheaper than flying from Dublin. The flight was full both directions, but perhaps only because it was peak holiday season. The vast majority of passengers were from NI. Not many Americans using it.

    • Yes, there’s a case for using if you are specifically going to New York. But really only then. In my case, I’m going to Washington.

      And your last line is the giveaway of course. What we are really doing is subsidising cheap flights to one particular location in North America for ourselves. Is that really why we pay taxes?!

  2. William Allen says:

    I use the Belfast to Newark route once a year. The flight is always full in both directions!

  3. Mary Martin says:

    A few years back there was an interesting case whether Aldergrove and Sydenham should be allowed to merge. The Competition Commission ruled that merger out, on competition grounds. Perhaps if they were “one” firm then they could coordinate better? Or perhaps there is something in the competition idea, keeping slotting charges down and allowing us quite cheap travel to GB? Or perhaps Dublin is competition enough?

  4. […] highlighted on these pages at the time, this was a deeply shocking move. Essentially it amounted to using your […]

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