Political leaders united in letter to Theresa May over air passenger duty

Senior first officer Iain Morrison, cabin crew Natalie Ramsey and Kerry Ferris, captain Paul Heasley and Belfast International Airport marketing manager Deborah Harris celebrate the inaugural flights to Prague and Fuerteventura with easyJet
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE leaders of the north's five main political parties have united in writing to Prime Minister Theresa May seeking the abolition of air passenger duty, which adds £26 to a domestic return flight from local airports.

It has been sent ahead of today's Budget, and reinforces the lobbying previously done by management at Belfast International, George Best City and City of Derry Airports.

The letter has been signed by Arlene Foster, Michelle O'Neill, Robin Swann, Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long.

They say: "We believe the removal of APD would provide an economic boost for Northern Ireland in the tourism and aviation sectors.

"Direct air access is a strategic necessity which underlines job creation and delivers opportunities for business."

But they insist the elimination of APD must not come at the expense of the existing block grant, which they insist would be "grossly unfair and impose a burden on services."

The leaders say that APD is an issue where there is no disagreement between the parties, adding: "We speak as one, believing the advantage of removing the tax far outweighs the disadvantages."

And they end their correspondence by urging Mrs May to "convince the Chancellor to take the necessary steps to deliver what would be an economic game-changer for all our people".

Research from PwC found that abolishing the air tax would have a positive effect on jobs and growth, as well as public finances in the longer term, and could lead to the creation of 60,000 jobs across the UK economy, with the majority outside the airline industry.

And as it would generate increased levels of economic activity in increased tax receipts such as VAT income taxes and corporate taxes, it would have the effect of being self-financing.

Janette Jones, a tax partner for PwC in Belfast, said: "Specifically to Northern Ireland, there are several reasons to support removing APD.

"There are few readily available alternatives to air travel; there is a potential to grow tourism revenues and it would improve competitiveness for the region's airports which have been impacted by lower rates in Dublin airport."

The three local airports have consistently claimed that APD is "like an anchor pulling us back", and is causing a reduction in the number of flights in Northern Ireland, with passengers instead opting to use Dublin, where the tax was axed in 2014 by then transport minister Leo Varadkar.

Meanwhile easyJet will this week launch two new routes from Belfast International Airport to Fuerteventura and Prague.

Flights to Prague will operate on Mondays and Fridays on an A319 aircraft, with fares starting from £24.68 one way per person. It expects to carry 11,100 customers in the first winter of operation.

And the service to Fuerteventura, which is expected to carry 13,000 customers this winter, will see flights operate on an A320 aircraft each Wednesday and Saturday, with fares starting from £26.70 one way.

EasyJet now offers 35 routes from Belfast, and in June based a new aircraft at Aldergrove, taking the total number of planes based there to six.