Loss of sole USA air link an ‘international embarrassment’ for NI

A United Airlines flight taking to the air.
A United Airlines flight taking to the air.

Northern Ireland’s Economy Minister has lashed out at “unelected Brussels’ bureaucrats” for the loss of the region’s only direct US air link.

Simon Hamilton also defended the £9 million rescue package for United Airlines, which has announced it will stop daily flights from Belfast to Newark early next year.

In a hard-hitting statement, the DUP MLA expressed regret at the airline’s decision and pointed the finger of blame at the European Commission, which blocked the funding package on state aid grounds.

Mr Hamilton said: “The Executive did the right thing with its bid to save this key route. There was a risk to the flight and we stepped in to save it. Faced with the same circumstances again, I would make the same decisions. All public money has been recouped with interest and we retained the route for a longer period.

“We were always aware of the potential of an issue around state aid compliance, but given the tight time scale to put a package of support in place, approval by the European Commission could not be sought in advance of agreeing a deal with United and it was our view, on balance, that given this was our only direct flight to the USA, state aid was not a factor.

“It is, therefore, deeply regrettable that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels have effectively scuppered this important flight for Northern Ireland.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken meanwhile described the situation as an “international embarrassment”.

The United service recently carried its one millionth passenger.

In a statement the company confirmed its last flight would depart from Belfast on January 9 next year.

A spokesman said: “We have regretfully taken this decision because of the route’s poor financial performance. We will contact customers with bookings for flights beyond those dates to provide refunds and re-accommodate where possible.

“We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

The decision to withdraw has dealt a major blow to Belfast International Airport.

Managing director Graham Keddie claimed it defied logic. He said: “You could hardly get a worse example of process-driven madness. To block a support package for an airline that delivers direct access to the United States is almost beyond comprehension.

“This is a vital link for business and losing it will be a body blow to Executive ministers who use it to promote Northern Ireland to would-be investors from the United States.

“The adverse impact is all the greater, coming as it does ahead of the crucial decision to make Northern Ireland more competitive, with reduced corporation tax designed to stimulate inward investment.

“This is a bad day for the Executive and a bad day for Northern Ireland, which is still finding its feet after a generation lost to conflict.”

UUP MLA Steve Aiken said he plans to raise the issue as an urgent oral question to the Stormont Assembly next week.

“This is a huge blow to our international standing and the Minister must tell us what he intends to do to sort it out,” said Mr Aiken.

Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson said the Stormont Executive had been given “slap in the face” and demanded explanations.

Mr Dickson said: “To lose our only direct air route from Northern Ireland to the United States will have a serious impact on our business community as well as local people using it to visit family or for holidays.

“Coming just weeks after United was offered £9 million to keep the route open after they threatened to pull it, is a slap in the face to our Executive.

“We also need a clear strategy from the Executive outlining what they are doing to attract another airline to this route as a matter of urgency. Our airports are already facing strong competition from Dublin airport and it is time we had a strong plan to develop Belfast’s air links with the rest of the world to help grow our economy.”

However, not everyone was disappointed by Europe’s decision to block the bailout.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: “This decision presents us with a huge opportunity, as the money can now be used on other projects which have a much greater benefit on ordinary people’s lives.

“Proposing to give the money to a large multinational airline was a vanity project from the very start, and it has now been shown to break the rules too.

“A few people may be slightly inconvenienced by having to travel a few hours down to Dublin to get a flight to New York, but if the money is now spent on better public services for everybody, such as early years’ education provision, I’m sure far more people will be happy and the money will go a lot further in the long run.”