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…