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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  • claudius

    I think the author is being slightly disingenuous with this post. He seems to be trying to link the lack of direct flights to NI to the planning restrictions on George Best Airport. Also, of course business owners are going to want more flights into GBA but if asked the same question about the International Airport Im sure that the same majority would agree with that sentiment also

  • Mister_Joe

    I have been to dozens of airports around the world. The more important thing is not how close they are to the city centre but the transport link(s).

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    As highlighted before by someone on here, there is railway line going past all three airports and no dedicated train stops for the train (OK, GB has Sydenham but by the standards of a luggage hauling tourist is it not a bit of a trek?)

    I concur with some of Claudius’ sentiments; why the focus on George Best?

    Why increase the traffic over nearly a densely populated part of the world (with high rates for businesses presumably) when Belfast International sits in a sparsely populated area and is still closer/as close to Belfast than other cities are to their respective airports e.g. Glasgow?

    A rail link with Aldergrove could make it even closer, it has plenty of room, more so if the RAF base closes (maybe it already has) and in the fantasy world of an efficient government a train link to Stroke-City could also be provided.

    Or (and I’m now asking to be committed) the same fairy-dust railway could also have direct links to Dublin; it would be much easier to flog the idea of more routes to airlines if they thought that an extra million people had easy access to Aldergrove and the consequences of expanding Aldergrove would not be so adverse as those of expanding GB.

    So, a a rail linked up Aldergrove for international catchment and expansion and GB for domestic flights.

    Win-win I’d say.

    Plus, during the flag protests it was highlighted that east Belfast does quite well in terms of investment compared to the rest of the place, expanding Aldergrove would be a shot in the arm for people from places west of the Bann, rural Antrim and even parts of West Belfast (not that far in the car if you nip behind the mountain, I was surprised).

    Spread the wealth.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I fly every other week ex Belfast and a few personal observations –

    1. The service out of GB is significantly better than at Aldergrove. Check in, security, parking and baggage reclaim are far superior.
    2. GB is wonderfully located if you live in Belfast. Aldergrove is not. It’s 40 mins outside Belfast or a £30 taxi ride one way – double that for a return and add to your flight ticket price!
    3. Aldergrove is, to use a US term, famous for gouging its users. Note the £1 rip off for the drive through that, to its credit, GB hasn’t yet leveraged. Also it may surprise folks but they’ve pretty much doubled their short stay per hour rates to @ £3.50 per hour!
    4. With the best will in the world Aldergrove is a 1970’s dump of an airport. It needs knocked down and rebuilt. Ask yourself what impression this makes on incoming travellers. Unfortunately Aldergrove won’t see significant investment as it bumps along, failing to address its key challenges, making only enough money to keep itself operating.

    So, in conclusion, I’d expand the terms of use for GB until such time that Aldergrove can address its issues – I agree the rail link is a no brainier, but for our politicians, that means it is likely never to get a green light. We face huge challenges, from an inward investment perspective, and we have a few “easy fixes”, one of which is the expansion of use of a strongly performing asset, ie. GB airport.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Good points Sergio.
    (For me Aldergrove’s blackest sin was knocking down the wee cottage bar inside….)
    If they could fix Aldergrove and upgrade the rail links then there could be a balance, but, as you say, “our politicians”. Ho hum.

  • chrisjones2

    Why should the Government fund any of this if its not an economic proposition?

    We don’t need a train link to Aldergrove because the traffic doesn’t support it economically. Its the same with George Best – bus is cheaper ad a lot more flexible.

    As for refurbishing the sites again its a matetr for teh private companies that own those sites

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Would a direct train link to Derry and Dublin be a white elephant for Aldergrove?

    We talk about NI being an economic black hole, so how do we get out of this black hole?

    Would a central airport with rail links to the major population centres of the north and east help?


    Can you imagine if the ‘bus is cheaper’ line was used with other european airports? Heathrow, Schipol, CDG, and even smaller airports?

    Traffic kills enthusiasm.

    All we have to do in NI is open a few platforms on already existing lines and things become more accessible.

    If we were to invest properly in rail, then Aldergrove could be linked directly to Dublin, how can the bus services match that?

  • Gopher

    Nobody wants to use Aldergrove over the City. Not many cities can boast an airport in its environs with room for expansion and we do nothing with this gift except hamstring it with ludicrous regulations. Dublin has moved from strength to strength. 134 Trans- Atlantic flights weekly and daily services to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. People from the UK are now using Dublin to fly long haul avoiding Heathrow and US immigration.

    Northern Ireland should have a piece that action. How incompetent the
    Executive are with regards air transport was demonstrated in the
    plans for the Belfast East-West Mass transit system which has no link
    to the City Airport. The failure to scrap passenger duty on short-haul flights is the biggest piece of administrative cowardice on the assembly’s long rap sheet of kicking cans down the road.

    Top of the list for the new Transport hub in Great Victoria street should be actual rail connections to the airports with the ability to check your bags there so tourists might actually have time to spend money in Belfast before they leave (if of course they havent came through Dublin in which case its debatable whether they come north at all)

  • Elvis O’ Presley

    Hardly a representative survey? Ni is just too small to support three airports! The disruption to the lives of thousands of residents beneath the flightpath needs to be taken into consideration. The international airport is best suited to cater for any necessary expansion without further adding to the misery of those whose nights sleep is disturbed on a daily basis.

  • Gopher

    The City is limited to 630am to 930pm so not too many nights sleep are disturbed. The Flightpath to Aldergrove is over my house and it causes zero disruption to me. Most people work or are at school during the day.

    Three airports is too many, if for arguments sake you get rid of the City you still have connect Aldergrove to Belfast, get rid of Band A Passenger Duty, Make it a 24 hour airport, and attract airlines No reason why an Airport in the North can’t be Ireland’s busiest as it stand we have 3 airports with zero connectivity and the most basic of destination choices running mainly charters

  • chrisjones2

    You dont know what you are talking about. Flights at Belfast city close at 10pm and most approaches and departures are over belfast lough disturbing a few seagulls

  • Elvis O’ Presley

    As anyone who lives under the flightpath will tell you noise is a major issue. Flights late in the evening, after 10 are a regular occurrence. A joined up approach is what is needed looking at all three airports, improved transport to the International and consideration given to the thousands effected by the noise from city airport traffic.

  • I’m Trending on Twitter

    I am thinking the Gaza strip might be a very popular route based on the way some people have been getting on recently, mind you it might be a more lucrative route for the City of Derry airport…

  • I’m Trending on Twitter

    The old ‘speed distance time’ fundamental

  • Croiteir

    A lot of “ourweecountryism” here. The City and Aldergrove (International is symptomatic of ourweecountryism), are regional airports and that is all they will ever be, Dublin is the international hub for Ireland and it would be in the better interests of the population to recognise this and develop rail and road links accordingly.

  • Gopher

    I don’t really think it is, airports equate to jobs and if there was a 32 county Ireland tomorrow the North Eastern bit would still need jobs and commerce. If this part of the world has the will they can develop an airport that can provide a massive boost to the economy.

  • DarrenNI

    Is this the same Wilfred Mitchell who was utterly destroyed (and his survey completely discredited) in an interview on Good Morning Ulster a few weeks ago?

  • Celtlaw

    Just how many airports does this small province need? Certainly not two in greater Belfast. One in Derry and Belfast International would be enough. Heck, you wouldn’t even need one in Derry if there was a decent motorway from Derry via BIA to Belfast.

  • Gopher

    Those would be mainly flights to Aldergrove your hearing, the approach is directly over the City. One wonders how the good people of the Republic cope with all the noise and they are talking about building a new runway to accommodate even more flights in bigger aircraft. Nope the complaint against the level of aircraft noise given the limited number of flights are spurious

  • Comrade Stalin

    We seem to do a thread like this fairly regularly.

    People always talk about having a rail connection to the airports. I’m a big proponent of railways but this is running before walking. We don’t have a train system with regular trains. Translink don’t even run connecting services, and outside of rush hour the frequencies are significantly reduced.

    It takes me about 20 minutes to get home in a taxi from outside the airport door to Whiteabbey from Belfast City Airport. If I attempted to do the same trip by train, it would take about two hours if I arrived in the early evening (as is typical on business trips) – and I’d have to lug baggage on and off the train and then walk home from the train station.

    Rail connections work in big cities where there is a lot of interconnected public transport. I wouldn’t dream of taking a taxi in New York or San Francisco, or London for example. But where you have a population spread out like ours and an infrequent rail service it’s not going to work. At best it will simply poach customers from the bus.

    Regarding the Aldergrove vs City business, it is certainly true that Aldergrove is stupid. There isn’t even a decent road connection to it. The shops and services leave a lot to be desired and the City punches well above its weight. But it would take a significant expansion, probably into the Lough, for the city to be able to handle international traffic.

  • Comrade Stalin

    You’re proposing to close Cork and Shannon too then ?

  • Mister_Joe

    Funny thing is that although SF has good connections to the airport, when I was there with my wife 10 years or so ago, it was cheaper to take a taxi than to pay two bus fares. Maybe different now. It was an exciting taxi ride to the waterfront visiting for the first time.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I was thinking of the BART, although I read that the BART station at the airport does not get used as much as they expected.

  • Gopher

    To get home from the City Im forced to pay £25 on a taxi fair rather than £4 on a train fair, If there was an actual rail halt at the City I would save on the £15 enforced MINIMUM fair to the city with a return ticket which combined is more expensive than some flights I have taken. An Ulster Bus does not even service the City and a bloody Dual Carriage way goes past the Airport!

    An airport defines your country as it is the point of entry, being asked by worried visitors how much it will cost them to get a Taxi to Botanic is not a welcoming position when there is a rail halt smack bang where they want to go! Its not just locals that use the Airport, its vital that tourists can get to and from their destination with in a user friendly way and minimum of fuss. One facility that is on the rise abroad is the ability to check luggage at the train station in the city centre freeing tourists to enjoy their final day in their city of choice without being tied to their hotel or a locker after checkout.

    Maybe 3 airports is too many but we have to decide what we want and make our choice the most accessible airport possible we also need to insure it services the most destinations possible. I see the Northern Cities in England are concerned this morning about missing the boat whilst we have petty squabbles about a couple of aerial museum pieces at the Maze the cites of England are making a unified front http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28654134

    Yup we have crap government. We should have an imaginative plan by years end and present a unified front to get it, unfortunately pigs dont infact fly

  • Gopher

    Joe the thing about SF is alot of visitors hire a car, that is certainly what I did Americans are only recently getting mass transit. Wheras in Europe and Asia visitors commute to their hotel. The City remains the most expensive airport to get to and from in a practical manner that I have ever been to, I have had private transfers from airports cheaper than that taxi ride.

  • Comrade Stalin

    To get home from the City Im forced to pay £25 on a taxi fair rather than £4 on a train fair, If there was an actual rail halt at the City I would save on the £15 enforced MINIMUM fair to the city with a return ticket which combined is more expensive than some flights I have taken.

    It’s about £15 for me to get to Whiteabbey from the City. I could pay about £5 for a one-way train ticket and it would take me the best part of two hours rather than 20 minutes. Time is money.

    An Ulster Bus does not even service the City and a bloody Dual Carriage way goes past the Airport!

    That isn’t true. There is a connecting bus between the City and the Europa bus station every 20 minutes.

    There is no way any train service is going to be as frequent as that.

    its vital that tourists can get to and from their destination with in a user friendly way and minimum of fuss.

    I agree with you, and the train will not provide this. Even if the train station stopped at the terminal door, Translink do not run a frequent train service, and do not provide connections.

    It would be considerably easier, but almost equally convenient, to change the bus service so that it stopped at Central and Botanic on its way to Europa.

    That said, looking at the map, there’s no reason why a modest amount of money could not be spent to move Sydenham station 500 yards so that it is oppose the airport and provide a pedestrian walkway to it. But it would still take 10 minutes to drag your bags etc over there and you’re still, off-peak, probably waiting between 30-60 minutes for the next train unless you’re lucky.

    One facility that is on the rise abroad is the ability to check luggage at the train station in the city centre freeing tourists to enjoy their final day in their city of choice without being tied to their hotel or a locker after checkout.

    You’re joking right ? Translink can’t even provide printable online booked tickets for the Enterprise.

  • Gopher

    Right and if you dont actually live beside the Europa Bus station or if you dont actually live in Belfast. I live a 20 minute train or bus ride ride away from the City with a frequent trains and buses to Belfast neither service the City. Time is in fact money

  • Comrade Stalin

    Europa bus station has a train station in it and pretty much all the train services call there. If time is money, nothing will get you home faster than a taxi.

  • Gopher

    So I wave at the City Airport going past on a train or bus to the Europa which is infact train station then lug my bags off and carry them onto a bus to go back the way to the City Airport . Its nonsense, just put a freaking halt at the City then people can get to or from by train from anywhere in Northern Ireland and if its the timetable your worried about a basic Hornby model railway set is more complicated than our rail network so we can get any model railway enthusiast to work one out for free!

  • Gopher

    As a matter of interest Comrade is the pro private hire, anti public transport Alliances position or just a personal one?

  • Comrade Stalin

    He was saying that there’s some sort of partitionist mentality behind wanting good international links in Belfast. My point is that there are international flights out of Cork and the airport there is not considered merely a regional hub.

  • Comrade Stalin

    You already know that I don’t speak for Alliance. Stop getting all snotty.

    I’m also at odds to understand why you think I’m anti public transport. I said I don’t see why the existing halt could not move to the spot opposite the airport. It would probably cost a few million (together with setting up appropriate road and pedestrian access) but if I was the transport minister I’d certainly be doing it.

    I didn’t pick up originally that you are trying to go in the North Down direction. I know of no airport that has connecting, dedicated public transport services other than towards the city centre. I guess bus services going up the A2 should call into the airport on their way; not sure why this is not currently the case.

  • It is chicken and egg really. Aldergrove is underused and one of the factors is the poor transport links. Improved rail would also be a direct benefit to commuters from Templepatrick and Newtownabbey.

    From an economic point of view Dublin is direct competition and have a distinct advantage due to tax differentials. If we could attract some of that traffic north it would have significant economic benefits, for tourism and business generally, Indeed if we had any sense we would have zoned the area around Aldergrove as an enterprise zone.

  • Firstly rail use is rapidly rising year on year and connections to the 3 airports would have wider advantages for local transport needs. The train service to where I live has doubled over recent years and usage significantly increased. Certainly there should be better transport facilities from the Templepatrick area and not only would they be used but it would have benefits for the wider rail network and significantly reduce road traffic.

    That said I agree that Translink simple do not provide a properly integrated transport service, They just don’t seem to do connections. Easy to criticise from the outside, but a bit more attention to detail could significantly improve the service, There are some obvious bottlenecks and difficulties, but the rail service is rapidly improving thanks to investment, which seems set to continue.

    Your view of Aldergrove is perhaps Belfast centric. West of Lisburn – Glengormley there isn’t much to chose from either and for many Aldergrove is more convenient. Aldergrove has the expansion capability and could be developed to give wider economic benefit.

  • The trains that pass this station are every 30 minutes. We manage to build a new airport right beside a railway and even build an underpass under a major road and somehow we completely fail to provide an integrated rail connection. May as well be living in Freedonia.

  • Croiteir

    Who said I wanted to close anything?

  • Croiteir

    My point is that Belfast airports are not competing as Dublin is servicing that need better. It is rather simple, the model needs tuned to the demand