Backlash on airport tax

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Budget airline Flybe is demanding showdown talks with Norwich Airport chiefs to protest about a controversial £3-a-flight terminal tax for passengers. Airport bosses are facing mounting anger both from passengers and the industry at the proposed 'airport development fund' (ADF) which is to come into force on April 2.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Budget airline Flybe is demanding showdown talks with Norwich Airport chiefs to protest about a controversial £3-a-flight terminal tax for passengers.

Airport bosses are facing mounting anger both from passengers and the industry at the proposed 'airport development fund' (ADF) which is to come into force on April 2.

Under the plans departing passengers refusing to pay the terminal tax will be grounded.

But the move, aimed at funding around a third of the airport's £18m expansion plans, has sparked uproar in the industry and fears that airlines will turn to non-fee paying airports instead - putting hundreds of jobs at risk and forcing passengers to fly from rival airports such as Stansted.

Another firm, First Choice, has fired off a complaint to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in protest at the decision amid industry concerns that airlines could face compensation claims from passengers who refuse to pay the charge and are denied boarding.

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Meanwhile the EDP has also learned that airport owners Omniport was asked at a board meeting last year to consider using part of the proposed levy to fund a carbon offset scheme, but directors later vetoed the idea.

Last night the airport, which is now employing a London-based PR firm to handle press inquiries about the issue, insisted it had given airlines plenty of notice about its plans. And it said the charge would be used to fund measures which could help the environment, such as better taxing facilities and noise reduction schemes.

And it said the fund was likely to last indefinitely and not be terminated when the development work is completed.

Ironically the row comes as Flybe is set to launch more cut price flights from Norwich including new routes to Malaga and Alicante. The summer season sees the reintroduction of flights to Amsterdam, Paris, Edinburh and Manchester.

Flybe has previously taken a hostile stance to attempts to make passengers pay more blasting plans by Conservative leader David Cameron to put VAT on tickets as a “full frontal attack on ordinary travellers”.

In a statement the firm said it had been kept in the dark about the airport's plans.

“As the biggest carrier to operate out of Norwich International, Flybe was surprised to learn that it has not been consulted in advance of the airport's announcement that it plans to impose an Airport Development Fee on passengers,” it said.

“Flybe will be having an urgent meeting with airport officials in the next few days, after which the airline will be in a position to comment.”

Emma Waddell, spokesman for First Choice, said the firm wanted the CAA to look at the decision.

“First Choice is disappointed in the announcement by Norwich airport about the introduction of a £3 airport development charge,” she said.

“We have expressed our concern about the lack of consultation before introducing the charge and the fact that it has been introduced at the time when the government is already asking customers to pay additional taxes on their flights in the form of Air Passenger Duty (APD).

“There are a number of questions that need to be answered such as who is liable for customers if they are refused travel - their contract is with the tour operator, not the airport, yet it is the airport that is insisting they pay the charge.”

Under the plans all outbound passengers will pay £3 with a £1 charge for children aged between two and 15 years old. Youngsters under two will travel free. Travellers will have to put the ticket into a barrier gate in order to get through to the departure lounge.

The tariff will raise £4-6m in the next five years and be handled by the airport's transport services company NCP. Revenues will partly fund work like increasing the number of check-in desks, better shops, improving the lounge side toilets, developing a new fire service training ground and introducing noise reduction facilities.

An airport spokesman said both the passengers and industry would see a return from the fund by getting better facilities and travel firms had been given plenty of notice about the plans.

“The reality is that Norwich Airport has conversations with the airlines and the operators all the time,” he said. “It's not the case that this just appeared out of the blue.

“This is something that's been on the agenda for quite a while. They are sophisticated businesses and a month is plenty of warning that we are going to be charging people £3 to go through the airport.”

He also ruled out setting a side some of the money to cut emissions.

“We are not going to have a hypothecated tax,” he added. “We think the environmental impact of what we are doing is being offset by some of the measures we are committed to using the ADF.”