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It is important that we continue to build our air connectivity so that it is as easy as possible for people all over the world to access Northern Ireland for business and tourism purposes. I am, therefore, encouraged by the latest air passenger statistics, which show that 7·89 million air passengers passed through Northern Ireland’s airports in the year to September 2016. That represents a 9·2% increase in passengers on the previous year, and passenger numbers are at their highest since the pre-recession peak of 8·27 million in 2008. The statistics give a clear indication that growth is returning to the Northern Ireland air travel market.
We have also had a number of positive announcements of new air routes in recent times, including a new Icelandair service to Reykjavik from Belfast City Airport from June this year, as well as the establishment of a Ryanair hub at Belfast International Airport. It was deeply regrettable, however, that, earlier this month, we saw the departure from Belfast International Airport of United Airline's last direct flight to Newark. Along with the International Airport, the Executive had agreed a package of financial support last summer that was aimed at maintaining this important business and tourism route. I continue to work closely with the International Airport to explore other possible air routes to North America, and I remain hopeful that there will be some positive developments in the coming months.
In September last year, the Executive announced a £7 million package for the north-west to assist development and growth around City of Derry Airport, which includes up to £2·5 million route development support to assist the airport to launch new routes. My officials are in discussion with representatives from City of Derry Airport and Derry City and Strabane District Council on the mechanism to provide route development support.
I have also announced my intention to establish a new air routes task force that will help to identify key routes that Northern Ireland's airports should be targeting as well as identifying possible policy interventions and initiatives to attract new airlines.
As I said, it is deeply disappointing that United Airlines made its last flight from Belfast International Airport earlier this month. I am on record in the House and elsewhere in stating my belief in the importance of having more direct routes to North America for business and tourism reasons. It is deeply regrettable that the United package did not work out and that it withdrew its flight.
Interestingly, something positive came out of that negative story — I am sure that the International Airport could testify to this — in the interest many airlines showed in coming to Northern Ireland, catalysed in part by the fact that they saw a Government here at Stormont who were prepared to roll up their sleeves, get involved and offer support when it was appropriate to do so. That has given rise to a number of leads and significant interest from a number of airlines. In the last few weeks, I have been able to sign off and agree a recommendation from officials to offer support to an airline that proposes to offer two direct flights from Belfast International Airport to destinations in the United States of America. That is working its way through the airline's approval process, and I hope that we will see positive news in the not too distant future. As long as I am in post, I will continue to work with the airlines, and particularly with the International Airport and the other airports in Northern Ireland, to try to improve not just our routes to North America but our connectivity on a much broader front.
Given the way in which Belfast International Airport is in direct competition with Dublin for overseas routes, can the Minister indicate whether he has had any conversations with his colleague the Minister for Infrastructure on the development of public transport links and better roads in the Aldergrove area?
I have not had any direct discussions with the Minister for Infrastructure about that, although I support the improvement of infrastructure to the airport. I think accessibility is key to improving connectivity, and I know there are long-standing issues. I saw Mr Girvan in the House earlier, and colleagues from South Antrim brought a motion not too long to the House ago calling for the reopening of the railway line and some connectivity into the terminal at Belfast International Airport. I know there are proposals to improve road access in that area, too. I think that is critically important to improving connectivity, and business passengers in particular, but also tourists, look for that to have good connectivity between the airport and where they are ultimately going. I think the International Airport has performed, as, indeed, has the City Airport in Belfast, incredibly well in difficult circumstances.
The Member mentioned the competition they have from Dublin Airport. It is a very unfair competition in my view, and I think the playing field is very much slanted towards Dublin. We have to accept that Dublin is a very different proposition and a very different city with a very different airport of a very different scale, but it has huge support because of the nature of its ownership. Through its Government, there is a lot of public support, which I think, ultimately, leads to a fairly uneven and unfair position in competition between Belfast and all the Northern Ireland airports and Dublin. I had hoped to be able to work towards rectifying that, accepting the realities of the situation, and we were, I think, on the way to doing that. Unfortunately now, the efforts I will be able to make in post will be limited, given the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Thank you very much indeed, Minister, for your comments so far. You will be aware of the comments today by Ryanair about the cost of the new runway at Dublin Airport. Bearing in mind that it has been funded through the state, would the Minister care to refer Dublin Airport Authority to the EU competition authority, particularly for its seeming use of state funds to build infrastructure in an unfair manner?
That was fairly low.
I will reflect on the comments he made, and it might be my last act in office if I was to take the Member up on his recommendation. He is, in his own particular style, making the point I was making in response to Mr Ford, which is that there are many different ways in which that competition really is not a competition. As I said before, we have to accept that Northern Ireland's airports cannot compete directly, and a lot of the routes Dublin is able to secure are probably not going to come to any Northern Ireland airports, but there are routes that could be coming here and many routes where a significant volume of the passengers come from Northern Ireland but are going on flights out of Dublin Airport. There are lots of different reasons for that, which we have discussed many times in the House, but I think the Member makes a very good point about the fact that the playing field is not always an even one between our airports here in Northern Ireland and those in Dublin.