European Commission: 'We didn't block United Airlines flight'

United Airlines had been due to receive £9m over three years to maintain the route
United Airlines had been due to receive £9m over three years to maintain the route

THE European Commission has said it did not block Stormont's £9m bid to rescue Northern Ireland's last remaining transatlantic flight.

The commission was roundly criticised by politicians and airport authorities when United Airlines pulled the Belfast to Newark service last week reportedly because the aid deal breached EU rules.

But in a statement, the commission said it had not reached a conclusion on the matter.

"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," it said.

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

United Airlines said it will stop the daily service Belfast from Aldergrove to Newark in January.

Last week, economy minister Simon Hamilton blasted what he called "unelected bureaucrats in Brussels (who) have effectively scuppered this important flight for Northern Ireland".

And Belfast International Airport chief executive Graham Keddie said it was "an example of abysmal Brussels decision-making".

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said revelations that the European Commission did not officially block the flight was "absolute dynamite".

"It now appears that the vital direct link to North America was pulled without a formal ruling being received from Brussels," he said.

"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."

In September, the north's auditor general Kieran Donnelly had told Stormont's Public Accounts Committee that there were "question marks" around the aid and the package was "unlikely to be approved on conventional grounds".

He said it was granted under so-called ministerial direction because the Department for the Economy permanent secretary would not authorise the subsidy on the grounds that it was irregular and did not represent value for money.

A spokesman for United Airlines said the last departure from Belfast will be on January 9 while the last from Newark will be on January 8, 2017.