Airporter boss Niall McKeever raises concerns over new permit process and says Derry firm has to ‘justify its existence’ each 3 years

Airporter owner Niall McKeever says new bus permit application guidelines means the popular company now has to ‘justify its existence’ every three years.

Mr. McKeever was part of a delegation of operators who expressed consternation over changes to the application process at the Stormont Infrastructure Committee.

The businessman has been running the Airporter service direct from Derry to the Belfast airports for nearly 25 years. He said that under new rules he will be treated as a new applicant every three years.

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“Having had 25 years’ experience in the industry, I know that we now exist under a licence scheme that challenges our position to grow and means that we have to justify our existence on a three-year basis,” he said.

Niall and Jennifer McKeever, owners and directors of Airporter.

He explained that under the new guidelines the renewal process means that in practical terms Airporter will be treated as a new applicant every time it reapplies for a permit.

“To put that in context, the financial agreement to purchase a new bus typically lasts for five years.

“You can imagine the challenges that that will present when fleet rotation is planned over a three-year period,” Mr. McKeever said.

The committee was advised how Airporter created a brand new direct access route in 1997 and has since grown that business from zero to 150,000 passengers per year.

The company, said Mr. McKeever, has carried over 2 million passengers over the past quarter of a century, maintains a fleet of 16 vehicles,and employs over 30 people.

Speaking as a member of the Bus and Coach NI consortium he suggested that the changes to the regulatory process ‘not only raise barriers of entry to the sector but put at risk existing operations we have created with new routes and access across the province.’

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All of this, he observed, is taking place at a particularly difficult time for the industry.

“The past 15 months have been extraordinary for the Government and society as we have adjusted our lives to the pandemic.

“As coach operators, we were the first to be hit, and, as business owners, we faced livelihood challenges with untold stress,” he told the committee.

He said government supports provided to the industry has been welcome but further challenges lie ahead.

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“Post-COVID, our sector has many challenges, and the opportunity now is to build on the new relationships. We cannot allow the subvention that has been invested in the industry so far to go to waste,” he said.