Fears for Derry airport: Council to ask government to help secure future

City of Derry Airport (Lorcan Doherty Photography)
City of Derry Airport (Lorcan Doherty Photography)

Derry & Strabane Council is to ask central government in London for more funding to secure City of Derry Airport’s future amid warnings it could become unsustainable within two years if additional money is not found.

Members of the Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee last night gave their approval for Council to engage formally with Central Government to request financial assistance to secure the sustainability of the airport beyond March 31, 2021.

Members were told that the Eglinton airport, while facing a number of challenges, currently offers customers five key routes across the UK including London, Glasgow and Manchester, Edinburgh and Liverpool, providing better connectivity than ever for both businesses and visitors to the region.

However, the UK Government funding subvention for the PSO route from Derry to London, currently provided at 100% until March 2021, will reduce to 50% thereafter. The Council, which owns the airport, said it would “not have the financial resources to bear this additional cost beyond that point”.

Council Chief Executive John Kelpie outlined the need for the government or governments to work with the Council to provide additional financial support in the form of continued 100% PSO subvention, as well as operational and capital funding support for the Airport post 2021 to ensure its “medium term viability” in providing continual connectivity to London and other key UK destinations.

Financial challenges being faced by the Airport were outlined, including reduced passenger numbers which have had a substantial impact on income, while changes to flight schedules has resulted in the airport staying open longer, which has in turn had an impact on the operational costs.

Other challenges include Air Passenger Duty (APD) of £13 - a major issue affecting growth in the UK and particularly NI. Meanwhile route development, which is directly linked to APD because the heavy tax burden imposed by APD, makes it more attractive for carriers to start up new routes elsewhere. Other issues raised included the significant Central Government funding provided to airports in other regions of the UK and Ireland to ensure the sustainability and operation of small regional airports, the current global economic crisis including the lowering of disposable income, high fuel costs and lowering the tendency to fly and the uncertainty around Brexit.

It was outlined how European Commission state aid guidelines acknowledge that under current market conditions airports operating under 200,000 passengers are experiencing difficulty covering operational costs.

The Airport, a key employer which it was stated provides an overall estimated annual positive impact to the NI economy to the tune of £14.2m, is currently working on route development to improve links to the North West.

Members of the committee heard in detail about the significant amount of work done to secure Government support up to the end of March 2021, and how additional Government funding for a minimum six-year period would assist in retaining this connectivity to key destinations in the UK beyond March 31, 2021, while essential rail infrastructure investment across the North West is progressed, in particular the A6 and A5.

It was outlined to members that the rationale for additional support for the airport would further consolidate the work that has gone into developing the airport and further developing its potential as a vital link within Ireland, the UK and Europe. The move will protect investment in the region, build confidence in our ability to deliver as a centre for business and promote further interest in the North West.

Members were informed that this additional support will also directly protect up to 110 jobs at the airport, a further 70 jobs through indirect and induced employment and a further 200 jobs through catalytic impacts of business productivity and tourism and provides an overall estimated annual GVA to the NI economy of £14.2m and that said despite the challenges, intensive cost saving measures carried out by the Airport Board over the past number of months were not sufficient to mitigate against these pressures and an increased subvention was necessary.

Members of the Committee also agreed that Council underwrite an additional sum up to £750,000 to keep the City of Derry operational to March 2021 as an interim measure to allow the Airport to operate whilst engagement continues with Government. Members were informed that this additional subvention would be allocated from in-year capital savings and therefore have no recurring impact on rates.

They were also advised that moving beyond 2021, it is hoped that the proposed formal engagement with Central Government in relation to contributions towards ongoing revenue costs would allow Council’s current funding to substantially reduce with associated savings then being available for other key strategic projects identified in the Council’s Strategic Inclusive Growth Plan.

It was outlined at the meeting how the Strategic Inclusive Growth Plan 2017- 2032 recognises that highly effective transport infrastructure is vital for the economy and the integral role played by City of Derry Airport in making Derry and the wider North West City Region a more attractive and competitive proposition for inward investors. Its importance in terms of the development and growth of the region’s tourism potential, whilst also delivering economic and social benefits to local communities and the North-West region as a whole, were relayed to members.

Members were informed how a key action highlighted within the Strategic Plan is improved connectivity and frequency of flights from City of Derry Airport to major business hubs. The development and sustainability of the Airport and the need for support from government for City of Derry Airport to help the development of new routes, improve connectivity and boost economic growth for the wider city region by increasing access, is also included in the Strategic Growth Plan.

The proposals agreed by members are subject to ratification by Full Council later in the month.