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Belfast International Airport

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support the operation of Belfast International Airport.

My Lords, the measures taken in response to Covid-19 have been unprecedented, enabling airlines, airports and ground handlers to benefit from a very significant amount of taxpayer support. This includes, but is not limited to, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and financing facilities. In Northern Ireland, airports have also benefited from business rates relief.

My Lords, Belfast International Airport is the largest airport in Northern Ireland, with 70% of all Northern Ireland travellers passing through it. It is an easyJet hub for the whole of Europe, and it is open throughout the night, with extensive essential flights for Royal Mail, the air ambulance, the military, security and freight. Yet, despite opening throughout the pandemic, it has not received any Department for Transport money or Northern Ireland finance support, even though a tiny Londonderry airport was allocated £1.2 million last week, and Aer Lingus at Belfast City Airport was supported for three months through the public service obligation. Can the Minister look into this and see what more the Department for Transport can do to ensure equal treatment for Aldergrove?

Can she also tell Northern Ireland passengers why, as it stands at the moment with the protocol, from 1 January, duty-free and tax-free goods will be available on all flights from GB airports to the EU, except from Belfast—and yet when flying from Dublin to London, you will be able to purchase duty-free? Will the Minister take this up as a matter of urgency with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who sits on the joint committee, as this is just not fair?

My Lords, a number of issues were brought up there, and perhaps I will take away the last issue and write to the noble Baroness. Financial support for airports is of course a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but it is the case that all of the airports—Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport and the City of Derry Airport—have benefited from the business rates relief. It was also the case that, for a very short period, there was an additional PSO in place, which operated from Belfast City Airport. This was put in place because that was the last remaining flight and therefore it needed to be protected, but that support was needed only for a very short period.

My Lords, our regional airports, such as those in Tees Valley, Newquay and Exeter, play an essential role in aiding regional connectivity. They are vital for both business and leisure and contribute to local economies. Would my noble friend the Minister agree with me that the business rates relief announced by the Government would help to ensure that, with this support, our aviation industry has a fighting chance of survival in these turbulent times?

My noble friend is quite right, and my department was delighted to be able to support the announcement of the business rates relief, which will be open for applications shortly. It is the case that up to a maximum of £8 million will be available per eligible site, and this will help support our commercial airports and ground handlers.

My Lords, the connectivity of travel between the four nations within the United Kingdom is essential. The people in Great Britain have the option of rail and road connections, as well as air travel; in Northern Ireland, we have no such options. Will the Minister please pass on to the department responsible the request that air passenger duty is removed from domestic flights from the three Northern Ireland airports—not from the international flights from Northern Ireland but from the domestic flights from Northern Ireland to Great Britain?

My Lords, the Government have committed to consult on the future of APD. This consultation has been slightly delayed by the Covid pandemic, but we expect it to be issued soon.

My Lords, I back the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. Those of us who live in Great Britain can get around by train and by car, but people in Northern Ireland can get over here only by air—at least until the Prime Minister builds his bridge, which may take some time. So will the UK Government now treat this as a special case and put some UK Government money into helping Belfast airport?

I have already addressed this point. It should be pointed out that Belfast International Airport is owned and operated by VINCI Airports, which owns and operates 45 airports worldwide and is a very large company. There are various interventions that Belfast International Airport is able to avail itself of at the moment.

My Lords, there has been a lot of focus on potential disruption at ports after 1 January but very little on the impact on airports and, in particular, Belfast airport. Can the Minister explain what the Government expect the situation to be, both with and without a deal with the EU?

My Lords, conversations around a deal or otherwise are ongoing, but trade with Northern Ireland will of course continue according to the “unfettered access” under the Northern Ireland protocol. It is worth noting that Belfast International Airport is a significant freight airport, and while it suffered a 79% reduction in passengers in October, it has seen an 8% increase in freight, so that is good news.

During the pandemic, smaller airports such as Belfast International Airport have suffered most, as airlines have consolidated their operations to the larger hubs. Am I to take it from the Government’s responses to this Question so far that they actually think they have done enough to ensure that no further smaller airports in the United Kingdom will face the financial pressures that Belfast International Airport has?

I apologise if I have given the noble Lord that impression; that was not my intention at all. The Government are well aware that both large and small airports are experiencing significant difficulties at the moment, which is why the expert steering group has been established. It is working on a strategic framework for the medium and long-term recovery of the aviation sector in the form of a recovery plan. This group does engage with the DAs.

My Lords, could the Minister look again at air passenger duty and provide us with a specific timetable for when that consultation will begin? Aviation is central not only to our transportation strategy but to our economic strategy through jobs in aircraft building and associated businesses.

My Lords, I am not able to provide any further details of the timing of the APD consultation. However, I recognise the noble Baroness’s point that aviation connectivity is important. That is why it will be an important part of the union connectivity review, which was announced on 30 June and will be led by Sir Peter Hendy. This will look at connectivity across all modes, including aviation, across the four parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the measures they have introduced, such as business rates relief and the other facilities that my noble friend mentioned, of which small airports can avail themselves. Will my noble friend tell the House what impact the Government expect on Belfast International Airport if we were to leave the EU without a deal at the end of December?

I am not aware that the Government have done any specific assessment of Belfast International Airport. It may be the case that the Northern Ireland Executive have, and perhaps I will ask them to be in touch if they have any further details.

[Inaudible]—Belfast International Airport to Dublin, because of the abolition of air passenger duty in the Republic. Therefore, Belfast International Airport was facing an uphill battle competing with Dublin Airport. The airport is the hub for international travel in Northern Ireland. In March, the Government announced a recovery plan for aviation. What specific financial assistance has been forthcoming to ensure the survival of Belfast International Airport?

My Lords, I have outlined the support that Belfast International Airport and various airports in Northern Ireland have already had, but I can give a little more detail. For example, the business rates relief which was offered by the Northern Ireland Executive totalled £2.2 million, of which Belfast International Airport received the lion’s share, at £1.7 million. The City of Derry Airport received £1.23 million from the NIE, but the reason behind that is that it is owned by the council, and local authority airports cannot access the same support as private airports, such as CBILS, the CJRS and so on.