BA committed to Belfast routes, Walsh tells MPs


BRITISH AIRWAYS is committed to developing services from Belfast’s George Best airport and rules out the prospect that Northern Ireland could lose landing slots at Heathrow, Willie Walsh has told MPs in London.

Delivering forthright views to the House of Commons’s Northern Ireland committee, Mr Walsh, who leads BA’s owner, the International Airline Group (IAG), sharply condemned the British government’s aviation policies.

British Airways has returned to Belfast because of Heathrow slots secured when IAG bought British Midlands (BMI), Mr Walsh said, adding that the Belfast slots would not be used for long-haul flights.

Defending the BMI takeover, which led to Belfast job losses, he said: “BMI was unfortunately a chronic loss-making airline. Our view was that it could never actually make any profitability. It lost about £200 million on a turnover of £918 million.” Some Belfast staff have moved or will move to Heathrow, he said. “The acquisition managed to save 1,500 jobs. Regrettably, jobs were lost and that is always sad to see, but we have saved a significant number of jobs.”

Last year, the British government granted powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly to cut the air passenger duties on long haul flights after Belfast was faced with the loss of the United Airlines service to Newark, New Jersey.

However, Mr Walsh said the Belfast reduction had given a cost advantage to United, because it is able to fly passengers from Northern Ireland into its US hub, and on to destinations throughout North America.

“The difference between flying direct to Newark or going to Heathrow is quite significant. There is a £52 difference per head. That is a saving of £210 for the average family. This is distorting competition,” Mr Walsh told the committee.

Democratic Unionist Party MP David Simpson questioned BA’s Belfast prices, saying business class passengers pay £2,000 more to fly from Belfast to the US through Heathrow compared with passengers travelling from Dublin via Heathrow.

However, Mr Walsh defended BA’s Belfast prices, saying they were the second-lowest of any United Kingdom airport BA served.

Questioned about new Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, Mr Walsh remembered old wounds left from the Conservative MP’s previous position as the UK’s aviation minister.

“Or some would say the anti-aviation minister. She opposed the growth of aviation and campaigned to have domestic flying at Heathrow stopped. I would have thought that the new Secretary of State would appreciate the benefit of aviation on her frequent travels between London and Belfast,” Mr Walsh said.