Wilfred Mitchell: We need to expand Belfast City Airport

A RECENT snap poll conducted by the Federation of Small Businesses for Northern Ireland (FSB NI) has confirmed that the majority of local small businesses would like to see an increase in destination routes, as well as airline providers, from George Best Belfast City Airport, conveying evident support for expansion at the airport.

Due to its relatively isolated position on the periphery of Europe, air connectivity is vital in connecting Northern Ireland to the rest the UK, Europe and beyond. A huge 96% majority of local small businesses agreed that air connectivity drives economic growth by increasing trade destinations as well as bringing increasing visitor numbers to the Province. Therefore, FSB NI has been calling for air links from and to Northern Ireland to be regularly reviewed and improved.

This sentiment has increased over the last number of years in particular, following the loss of five UK routes by Ryanair in 2010 after a well-publicised vocal outburst of frustration by CEO Michael O’Leary at the failure of expansion plans at the airport coming to fruition.

With increased trade visits being made both by FSB members and local politicians, including the First and Deputy First Minister and the Enterprise Minister, Northern Ireland is showcasing first class services and goods on a global stage. However, because of the lack of direct routes, these Northern Ireland trade missions are often forced to travel via Dublin airport, using the gateway to another economy instead of having being able to fly directly from our own.

Moreover, the increase in visitors that improved air connections bring is of particularly value to short-break tourism, additionally boosting other sectors such as hospitality and retail. Hard work has established Northern Ireland as a key travel destination, not only as the ‘Home of Thrones’ but coupled with numerous ‘big ticket’ international attractions such as the Giro D’Italia, Titanic Belfast and the Giants Causeway. However, until expansion occurs, many international visitors first have to travel to another country prior to embarking on the trip to Northern Ireland.  

Alongside the issue of route expansion, there are a number of other operational restrictions placed upon the airport. The flight operating hours are restricted to between 6.30am and 9.30pm and there is a bias of flights over Belfast Lough but, bizarrely, the airport is also limited to selling only 2,000,000 seats on flights per year. The restriction on the seats for sale is an issue that resonates strongly with FSB members, with 86% of respondents calling for the removal of this limit.

In addition to increasing business opportunity and boosting visitor numbers through greater flight provision, George Best Belfast City Airport has highlighted that if expansion of its activities were authorised, it would also produce a further 270 local jobs and increase the number of European flights and destinations on offer. Ultimately, in doing so, it would increase both direct and indirect economic benefit to the Province.

A report illustrating the results of the survey undertaken by the FSB’s Northern Ireland Policy Unit on George Best Belfast City Airport and air connectivity in Northern Ireland is available for download from our website.

Wilfred Mitchell is the Chairman of the Federation of Small Business in Northern Ireland.

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