WE’VE already had the first casualty of the Scottish Budget. Citing the failure of the Scottish Government to introduce its planned cut in the rate of Air Passenger Duty (APD), Norwegian Airlines this week announced that in March it would be axing its twice-weekly service between Edinburgh and Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. The budget carrier is also reducing the number of flights on its route from Edinburgh to Providence, Rhode Island from four a week to three. In a statement, the airline said:“As of March 25, 2018, Norwegian Air will no longer operate its Edinburgh service out of Hartford’s Bradley International Airport. The decision to pull the route, along with decreasing service to Edinburgh from other US airports, is due to the Scottish Government’s postponement of a reduction to air passenger taxes.”

However as services to Scotland are cut back, the airline is increasing the frequency of its service from Providence to Shannon Airport in Ireland. Meanwhile Ireland’s national carrier Aer Lingus has said that when it introduces its summer schedule, flights between Dublin and Bradley International will increase from twice a week to daily. Scotland’s loss is Ireland’s gain.

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My American partner lives in Hartford, and we’ve both flown on the Norwegian Airlines Edinburgh to Bradley International service a couple of times since it was introduced last summer. We were grateful for the service. It offered a relatively inexpensive and very convenient direct connection between Scotland and my partner’s home city in the US. Previously we’d had to make a connection in either Dublin or London in order to visit one another.

Last summer MSPs voted in Holyrood to replace APD with a new devolved Air Departure Tax, which was due to be introduced in April this year. Although the rates for the new tax had not been set, it was widely expected that they would be lower than the existing rates for APD, which for economy-class journeys is set at £13 for short-haul flights, and £75 for long-haul flights (over 2000 miles). It had been reported that the Scottish Government would cut the tax by 50 per cent before eventually abolishing it altogether. Flights originating in Northern Ireland already have an exemption from the tax, allowing them to compete with airlines in the Irish Republic.

However the planned change has been postponed until next year. Currently flights to and from the Scottish islands are exempt from APD, but this exemption can only be maintained after an assessment is made by the European Commission. This requires the intervention of the UK Government. In October last year, Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay claimed that Westminster had set “unacceptable conditions” on the process. More cynical observers might think that it suits the Scottish Government to kick the issue into the long grass, as they need the support of the Greens in order to get the Scottish Budget passed, and the Greens oppose any cut to APD.

But this isn’t another SNP-bad story. There are other reasons preventing Scotland from developing its airports and airline services to the level enjoyed by Ireland, reasons which have everything to do with Ireland being an independent state whereas Scotland is a part of the UK. Thanks to investment and tax breaks from the Irish government, Dublin is a major European hub airport. Edinburgh is not. Yet like Ireland, Scotland is geographically the nearest part of Europe for airline services originating in North America, and is ideally situated to act as a major hub airport for flights between European destinations and North America. Ireland is able to take advantage of its geographical position, Scotland is not.

Serving over 29 million passengers annually, Dublin is the 14th-busiest airport in Europe, offering direct flights to 19 destinations in the USA and Canada. Many of the passengers on transatlantic flights to Dublin are catching connecting flights to elsewhere in Europe. Despite serving a catchment area with a similar population, Edinburgh, Scotland’s busiest airport, is used by only 12.3m passengers a year, and after the loss of the Hartford flights offers direct services to just seven destinations in the US and Canada. Dublin also offers considerably more connecting flights to onward destinations, making transatlantic services to Dublin more attractive, especially to business users.

Speaking to the local press in Connecticut this week, Kevin Dillon, the executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, acknowledged that limited connections from Edinburgh were seen as a challenge to the Hartford-Edinburgh service from the start. On the other hand, he claimed that the Dublin to Hartford route continues to show promising growth.

Dublin enjoys an additional advantage for travellers, one which no airport in Scotland can compete with. Travellers to the US pass through US customs and immigration in Dublin airport, meaning that when they arrive in the US it’s like arriving on a domestic flight, they only need to collect their bags and go. Passengers arriving from Scotland must queue up after a long and tiring flight, sometimes for over an hour, in order to be processed by US customs and immigration. Introducing this preclearance service in Dublin, and in Shannon airport, required an international treaty between the Irish government and the US. The Scottish Government doesn’t have the authority to do so, even though it would make Scottish airports a far more attractive prospect for travellers.

In November 2016, the US authorities included Edinburgh airport in a list of European airports being considered for preclearance. Manchester and London Heathrow were already being considered. A final decision will have to be made by the Home Office and the British government. This is likely to take several years.

As things stand, travellers to and from Scotland have to put up with a second-class service compared to travellers to and from Ireland. Dublin picks up the extra jobs generated by the airlines, while Scotland loses out. The main reason for the difference is clear: it’s because Ireland is an independent state but Scotland is not. The only way that Scotland will ever enjoy world-class connections to the rest of the world is when, like the Irish Republic, we compete with the rest of the world on a level playing field as an independent nation.