Foster asks officials to look at potential connections to Germany, Scandinavia and Madrid

Trade Minister Arlene Foster has asked officials to consider a new air route development fund to promote connections from Londonderry and Belfast to several major cities in Europe.

Any new Northern Ireland specific fund - should it be given the go ahead - will be a focused intervention concentrating on markets and cities currently not served from local airports, including Germany, Scandinavia, Milan, Brussels and Madrid.

Passengers arriving at City of Derry Airport. (2903PG14)

Passengers arriving at City of Derry Airport. (2903PG14)

The proposal was discussed at a briefing of the Stormont Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee last week at which top civil servants from DETI briefed MLAs on a new economic assessment of the impact of Air Passenger Duty (APD) in Northern Ireland.

Both airports and airlines have consistently complained that APD amounts to a “departure tax” and is damaging the local tourist economy.

City of Derry Airport Manager Damien Tierney complained in 2012, for example, that APD charged in the UK was already the highest in the world and up to 8.5 times more than the European average and that it was inhibiting the local airport’s ability to attract new carriers and routes to the North West region.

However, according to Diarmuid McLean, head of the DETI economic policy division and John Simms, head of the DETI access and agrifood branch, a new evidence-based assessment of the economic impact of APD on the Northern Ireland economy suggests reducing this “departure tax” would probably boost the number of passengers leaving here for Europe but wouldn’t significantly attract more in-bound visitors - pleasure and business - to theses shores.

Moreover, the decision last year by the state-subsidy phobic European Commission to once again permit the use of air route development funds after a lengthy ban has lead to officials considering such funds as an alternative method of getting more business people flying here from hitherto untapped markets.

Mr McLean told the Committee: “Our Minister has asked officials to consider the potential for a Northern Ireland-specific air route development fund that is focused on supporting routes with business and inbound tourism potential.”

Later Mr Simms explained how such a fund might be geared.

“We would focus any air route development fund on markets and cities where we are not served; for example, Germany, Scandinavia, Milan, Brussels and Madrid.

“It would be a focused intervention. As Diarmuid said, it would focus on inbound tourism and business potential,” he said.

Mr Simms explained that technically the two smaller airports here - City of Derry and Belfast City - would qualify for a fund under new relaxed EC rules but Belfast International wouldn’t.

However, officials argue that because Northern Ireland is cut off from the new HS2 high-speed rail link connecting Britain and Europe a special case should be made.

“We are an island off an island off mainland Europe. We cannot access HS2, and we cannot access the European land-based route network. One of our arguments to the Commission will be that all our airports must be included in this: Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport and City of Derry Airport,” said Mr Simms.