European Commission: We didn’t block New York flight

United Airlines were told an Executive bail-out was contrary to EU rules, but the European Commission says they did not make the decision to axe route
United Airlines were told an Executive bail-out was contrary to EU rules, but the European Commission says they did not make the decision to axe route

The European Commission has denied it made any decision that led to the cancellation of Northern Ireland’s only direct flight to the US.

When it was announced last week the Belfast-Neew York route would be axed, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said it was “deeply regrettable that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels have effectively scuppered this important flight for Northern Ireland”.

The commission said on Tuesday it did not make the decision to axe the route, though it admits it did investigate a complaint about the legality of an Executive bail-out package for United Airlines.

A commission spokeperson said: “To be clear, the European Commission received a complaint alleging that the measure was in breach of EU rules, which it looked into, but we did not take any decision on the matter.

“The Northern Irish authorities and United Airlines have themselves decided to end their arrangement.”

During the summer United Airlines were offered a bail-out package of £9 million by the Executive when they laid down the ultimatum they would have to withdraw the route if they did not receive additional financial support.

The deal was given rushed approval but had been flagged as contrary to EU rules which do not allow public authorities to grant a specific airline an “undue advantage”.

The Executive considered it to be a gamble worth taking, however shortly after the arrangement was put in place, the European Commission received a complaint alleging that the measure was in breach of EU rules.

When the announcement was made that the Belfast to Newark route was to end on January 9, many, including Mr Hamilton pointed the finger of blame at the European Commission.

The News Letter has seen a letter from United Airlines to Invest NI, in which the airline said it made its decision pursuant to “clear communication from the European Commission” at a meeting on October 27 in which both United Airlines and the Northern Ireland government participated.

United Airlines was also quoted as saying it had taken the decision because of the route’s poor financial performance. Any money it received from the emergency £9 million package has been paid back to the Executive.

The Ulster Unionist Party’s spokesperson for the economy Steve Aiken has called for urgent clarity.

The MLA said: “It now appears that the vital direct link to North America was pulled without a formal ruling being received from Brussels.

“Indeed, if a formal ruling had been received, we could probably have found ourselves in a much better position to marshal opposition to the un-named complainant and maintain this vital strategic air link.”