This week the Government cut Air Passenger Duty (APD) on long-haul flights from Northern Ireland, trimming the rate from £60 to £12 for passengers in economy class, and from £120 to £24 for those in business class.
Currently, Northern Ireland's only long-haul service is a Continental Airlines route from Belfast to New York. The carrier had threatened to scrap it because of the high level of aviation tax. APD on the service had been 20 times higher than the equivalent tax on flights from Dublin, and a number of travellers in Northern Ireland had begun flying to the US from the Irish capital instead.
Earlier this year, Telegraph Travel reported that the number of passengers flying from Belfast had fallen by more than a third since 2007; at other regional airports, including Prestwick and Doncaster/Sheffield, passenger numbers have fallen by more than half. During this time, APD has risen by 140 per cent on short-haul flights and by up to 325 per cent on longer journeys. This week's move could mean that more airlines will launch long-haul services from Belfast.
"We hope that the Belfast decision creates a domino effect for other UK regions," said a spokesman for Flybe, which operates a large number of routes from Britain's regional airports. "We strongly believe regional airports can play a vital role in absorbing some of the demand from constrained airports in the South East.
"Fundamental reform of APD, by means of a 20 per cent cut in the tax on flights from regional airports, would have a minimal impact on passenger numbers in the South East but would generate thousands of extra passengers for the hard-pressed regions."
The Flybe spokesman also called on the Government to address the fact that domestic passengers can pay more in APD than those heading much farther afield. On a return flight between Glasgow and Belfast (a 208-mile round trip), passengers pay £24 in APD, but on a return flight from Glasgow to Dalaman, in Turkey (4,086 miles), they pay just £12.
Alan Cooke, an aviation specialist at Mott MacDonald, a consultancy firm, said the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament were strongly in favour of a reduction in tax on flights from more regional airports, and suggested the decision on Belfast should encourage airlines, regional airports and politicians to apply pressure on the Government.
An announcement on APD is due this month and an increase of around 10 per cent – double the rate of inflation – is expected.
Next year, Britain enters the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme, which will further increase the cost of flying.