Stormont ‘failing economy' over air passenger duty

Ryanair is to return to Belfast at the end of March

STORMONT ministers are "failing" the Northern Ireland economy by not backing calls to scrap air passenger duty (APD), it has been claimed.

The issue has been brought back into focus this week with the announcement by budget Irish airline Ryanair that it was returning to Belfast after a six-year absence.

The carrier said it planned to operate to several European destinations from its new Belfast International Airport base - with one caveat - the Northern Ireland executive moves to ditch APD.

Ryanair is investing £68 million in setting up at Aldergrove with an initial plan to fly four times a day to London Gatwick.

It said there was capacity to grow the base to three aircraft, supporting up to 750 jobs a year and serving several European destinations.

It is understood Berlin, Barcelona, Brussels and Copenhagan are among those targeted by the carrier but they are unlikely to confirmed until Ryanair is satisfied with the future of what it called the north's "outrageous" air taxes.

Responding to the airline's call, a Stormont spokesman repeated the executive's position that abolishing APD was not considered economically viable.

However, the Executive had previously scrapped the tax on long-haul flights in a bid to keep American carrier Continental in Northern Ireland after it threatened to pull out altogether.

It has been suggested Stormont ministers could consider removing the duty on European flights.

The Irish government meanwhile firstly removed APD on a temporary basis before scrapping it altogether when it proved successful at increasing air traffic and services.

The north's Conservatives spokesman Jonny Andrews accused the executive on Friday of "inaction" on the issue and also called for the area around Aldergrove to be designated at enterprise zone.

"The DUP and Sinn Fein are all talk and no action," he said.

"The Conservative government has encouraged and allocated money in Northern Ireland to the setting up of enterprise zones,such as the one at Manchester Airport but Stormont has done next to nothing.

"Politicians, particularly from DUP, criticise the problems posed by Air Passenger Duty and yet Stormont has the opportunity to devolve APD and they choose to do nothing.

"There is no APD in the Republic and all the main parties in Scotland seem to be moving towards cutting or abolishing APD. In recent years many local companies, particularly in construction, have been very good at winning new business in GB and beyond. Their reward for their enterprise seems to be indifference amongst our insular political masters."

Speaking at a press conference in Belfast on Thursday, Ryanair'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 pays €17 (nearly £13) in air passenger duty per passenger, which it claims heightens the commercial risks of flying further.

It left Belfast City Airport in 2010 blaming delays in plans to extend the runway which it said hindered its efforts to bring more European destinations to the city.

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