Ryanair tells Stormont: ‘Scrap APD and Europe's your oyster'

Ryanair's David O'Brien (right) and Belfast International Airport boss Graham Keddie pictured in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
Gary McDonald Business Editor

RYANAIR has held a metaphorical gun to Stormont's head by indicating that it would introduce up to 10 new European routes from Belfast and bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists - so long as the Executive follows Dublin's lead and scraps air passenger duty (APD).

The Dublin-based carrier confirmed on Thursday that it is opening a new base at Belfast International Airport in March, initially flying four times daily to London Gatwick and representing an immediate investment of $100 million (£68m).

The base will grow from one to three aircraft - and at least five more new routes - from October, delivering around a million new customers and year and supporting up to 750 additional jobs.

But it appears those European destinations - believed to include Berlin, Barcelona, Brussels and possibly Copenhagen - won't be confirmed until Ryanair is given some sort of guarantee on the removal of what it calls the north's "outrageous" air taxes.

The airline's chief commercial officer David O'Brien said: "We are not asking the Government for money, but simply urging them to stop taking money from us, and if they don't, we will make our decisions on that basis - whether to fly domestically or go further afield."

Ryanair is paying €17 euro (nearly £13) in air passenger duty per passenger, which it claims heightens the commercial risks of flying further.

"We're hopeful we can introduce some new European routes for business and leisure at much-needed lower fares," Mr O'Brien said.

"But it will largely depend on the cost base available, and it's fair to say the outrageous tax imposition that is APD hampers those opportunities."

Ryanair's return to Northern Ireland at Aldergrove comes more than five years after it quit at Belfast City Airport in frustration over delays on proposals to extend the runway, which limited the service and type of routes it could provide.

The move has been made possible because Ryanair has secured a number of landing slots at Gatwick surrendered by Aer Lingus as part of the conditions of its takeover by BA owners International Airlines Group.

Belfast International Airport managing director Graham Keddie said: “This is a significant and far-reaching announcement by Ryanair. The Gatwick slots are being safeguarded and used for the benefit of Northern Ireland. Gatwick is growing in popularity, and it was crucial to retain them."

He added: "The promise of three based aircraft and five more new routes to be announced later in the year increases Northern Ireland’s reach and gives Belfast International a competitive edge.

"This very positive news is the equivalent of a major inward investment without the strain on public finances, and it will deliver thousands of new visitors and hundreds of welcome new jobs."

He too took a swipe at the authorities over the retention of APD, which he claims has been a factor in 850,000 people from the north choosing to fly from Dublin.

"Just imagine what we could achieve if the yoke of APD was removed, just as it has been in the Republic of Ireland?”

In a statement on Thursday night, Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell made no reference to APD, but said he was taking a "keen interest" in how the Ryanair investment can be maximised.

But a spokesman for Stormont's Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment said an assessment had found APD was "not a strong tool for economic development".

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