Coronavirus: Decisions on NI airports needed 'in days'

By Richard Morgan
BBC News NI business reporter

Belfast International Airport
Image caption,
Belfast International Airport says it has been working to underline its critical role with the government

Northern Ireland’s three airports have been in discussions with the Department for Transport about their continued operations, BBC News NI understands.

Sources close to the talks have said critical decisions will need to be made in a matter of days.

Airlines have grounded the majority of flights due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Currently only two commercial flights are operating between Northern Ireland and London.

On Monday, Economy Minister Diane Dodds spoke to Secretary of State Brandon Lewis and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps about the issue.

“I had an important conversation on air connectivity. I impressed on them the essential role of Northern Ireland’s three airports, not only during this crisis, but also when we emerge from it," Mrs Dodds said.

Image source, PACEMAKER
Image caption,
Strong airport connectivity with Great Britain has never been more vital for the economy, says Diane Dodds

“Strong airport connectivity with Great Britain has never been more vital for our economy and, therefore, it remains a top priority for me.”

Finance Minister Conor Murphy said he had stressed to the transport secretary that the airports need "urgent support".

"I hope the transport secretary can quickly deliver the support needed to maintain business links in the short-term and ensure our airport links remain in place now and when we enter the economic recovery stage," he said.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said the impact of the current crisis was being felt acutely across ports, airports and airlines.

"Today, I also spoke with the secretary of state for transport and raised the need for financial assistance to support ports and the local aviation industry," she said.

"I will continue to press for critical support to protect our economy and, most importantly, our community at this difficult time."

Former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith tweeted on Monday that it was vital the airports stayed open, adding the NI Executive and Department for Transport needed to “resolve this in the coming hours".

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

The Freight Transport Association, which has been involved in talks with the Department for Transport, said it had outlined the "economic importance" of Belfast International Airport because of its status as an air freight hub.

“It brings in post, parcels and other essential goods for Northern Ireland.”

In a statement, the airport said it had been working with all levels of government to underline its critical role.

“By remaining fully open and operational 24/7 our teams are engaged in the transportation and facilitation of essential cargo and medical flights to keep Northern Ireland supplied around the clock.”

BBC News NI understands Belfast City Airport needs in the region of £1m per month, while City of Derry Airport’s monthly overheads are approximately £350,000 per month.

Image caption,
Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the airports needed "urgent support"

That is according to a letter sent to the aviation minister by MP Colum Eastwood, which asked the government to “urgently provide emergency funding for the airport to ensure its long-term viability".

Those familiar with the talks expressed concerns about how a potential temporary closure of any airport would affect the introduction of future routes.

The collapse of Flybe last month resulted in Belfast City Airport losing the majority of the routes it offers, but it is understood positive discussions with other carriers have been ongoing.

In a statement, the UK government said the aviation industry could avail of economic relief measures it had announced to date but also that it "remains open to discussions on further cross-sector measures the industry may suggest".

"Any company can approach the UK government as a last resort if, after the comprehensive package we've put in place and considering all other options, it is still in difficulty."