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United Airlines: Belfast to Newark Route

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 2:30 pm, 7th November 2016

T1. Mr Nesbitt asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the First Minister was surprised by the collapse of the proposed support package for the United Airlines Belfast to Newark route. (AQT 416/16-21)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for giving me the opportunity to speak about this, because this was something that we were essentially forced into at the end of the summer when United indicated that it was going to leave Northern Ireland unless there was some intervention from government. The Economy Minister came to the Executive, and he had a package proposed. He had to do it very quickly, and it was worth doing. It was the right thing to do at the time, but unfortunately the European Union did not agree with us. It has decided that we cannot proceed with what it calls a state aid, and because of that United quickly took the decision, paid back any money it had received and will leave Belfast International Airport at the beginning of January, if my memory serves me right. I regret that deeply, because it was a very important direct link to North America. Because Newark is one of those hub destinations, it was really our entry into the whole of North America, and it is deeply regrettable this has happened.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the First Minister. I am sure she will recall that Sir Reg Empey as ETI Minister was able to fund routes by putting the money into the marketing rather than directly into the flights, and she may care to comment on that. Was she satisfied the Executive could have monitored how the money was used to ensure that United did not turn it into straight profit?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Yes. We spent some time going through this with United. Of course, it would have been some feat to spend £9 million on marketing, which was why the Economy Minister put forward the programme that he did. It was the right thing to do. Of course, if we had not been in the European Union, we would have been able to do it, and that is the fundamental nub of all of this. If I was to look for a practical expression of state aid bureaucracy, here it is.