Turkey and Canada on radar as new air route fund takes off

Could Turkish Airlines soon be flying from Belfast International?
Could Turkish Airlines soon be flying from Belfast International?

AIRPORTS in the north were handed a £4m cash injection yesterday to help them attract new carriers and fly to more countries.

It could ultimately pave the way for links to un-served international destinations including Canada, Turkey and the Middle East.

But its Stormont funders have stopped short of making any moves towards removing air passenger duty (APD), which is seen as the real inhibitor of growth in the airline sector.

Trade minister Jonathan Bell announced an enhanced co-operative marketing fund to support the development of new air routes to the north’s three main airports.

It came in what was officially his last day in office before two Easter bank holidays and the onset next Tuesday of 'purdah', the period ahead of the May 5 Assembly elections, when MLAs are effectively stood down.

The financial inducement, which could include reduced landing fees, is aimed at encouraging airlines to consider more direct scheduled services from the north, and is similar to previous government-backed schemes which attracted the likes of the Belfast-Newark link.

Mr Bell said: “Air connectivity is an important driver for economic growth in Northern Ireland, and this £4 million of additional support will be provided through enhanced co-operative marketing and is specifically for the development of un-served routes with a high potential for inbound tourism and business.

"Our air passenger numbers are growing, which is excellent news for the industry.

"But from an economic development perspective I want to ensure we maximise the business opportunities through connectivity to strategic destinations and ensure we can attract visitors to experience our world class tourist offering."

He added: "I believe Northern Ireland can benefit economically from greater connectivity to a range of short haul destinations within Europe, as well as greater long haul connectivity to Canada and the Middle East.”

The news was broadly welcomed by the airports, but Belfast International boss Graham Keddie said: "It gives us more ammunition to talk to airlines, but it needs to be quick and uncomplicated.

He added: "While we welcome this fund, it is only the removal of APD that will allow us to compete effectively. It remains the real and fundamental key to unlocking significant growth in direct air access."

Efforts have been ongoing for nearly four years between Belfast International and Europe’s third most profitable carrier Turkish Airlines to land the lucrative route to Istanbul, which would open up Asia for Northern Ireland businesses.

Management have always said that a modest monetary incentive - believed to be in the region of £1 million - may be enough to entice the Turks to Aldergrove, and it's likely they may tap into this new fund to make it happen.

A route into Istanbul's Ataturk International is seen as a critical facilitator to investment in the eastern world for Northern Ireland companies, giving them access to destinations in the Far East and Australasia.

Brian Ambrose, chief executive of George Best Belfast City Airport, said: "We welcome this announcement and look forward to engaging with the Department as we continue to develop our European route network."