Yesterday’s announcement that Brussels Airlines are withdrawing their route from Belfast City Airport to Brussels is the latest in a series of setbacks for Northern Ireland’s aviation sector, following the controversy surrounding the termination of United Airlines’ route from Belfast International to Newark.
The habit of throwing government funds at airlines to coax them into flying to Northern Ireland, only for them to pack their bags and leave when the subsidies run out, has become routine. Serious questions must be raised as to whether the Northern Ireland taxpayer is getting value for money from these arrangements, especially given the fact that Northern Ireland already has a world class airport to connect it to the globe: Dublin.
Dublin has a far richer network of airlines and destinations than all of the three Northern Ireland airports (Belfast City, Belfast International & City of Derry) combined. I used data from openflights.org to find out the destinations available, both direct and with a change, from Northern Ireland and Dublin. The data is a couple of years old, so will not reflect new routes since 2015, but still includes the flight from Belfast International to Newark.
The three Northern Ireland airports offered direct flights to 13 countries, and with a change of plane (mostly in London), offered indirect flights to 81 countries. Dublin, by comparison, offered direct flights to 35 countries, and with a change of plane offered destinations in 146 countries (airlines that fly point to point such as easyJet and Ryanair were excluded from the change of plane analysis). The far greater choice of destinations offered by Dublin can be seen quite clearly in the maps below (a black dot denotes a direct destination, a red dot means it can be accessed with one change).
Dublin Airport is an essential link to Northern Ireland’s export markets. The table below shows the top 10 countries for Northern Ireland exports for the first three quarters of 2016. Absent cross border trade, the largest destinations for exports are the United States and Canada. Northern Ireland has no direct all year round flights to anywhere in these countries, whilst Dublin offers dozens of flights a week.
It also offers a far greater choice of flights to destinations in East Asia and the Gulf, which will become of paramount importance following the UK’s exit from the European Union, as local exporters attempt to grow exports to the rest of the world to mitigate against possible impediments to exports to the EU.
The money needlessly wasted subsidizing unviable airline routes would be put to much better use improving access to Dublin Airport, such as improving the safety of the A1, and fixing the bottleneck at Sprucefield. It is also pointless for Northern Ireland to have three airports when one would suffice.
There will always be a demand for flights from Northern Ireland to Britain, and to ferry holidaymakers to destinations such as Mallorca and Malaga. However, the endless subsidies on offer to airlines to induce them to fly to Northern Ireland, only for them to leave when they are expected to stand on their own two feet, is an utter waste of taxpayers’ money.
Dublin Airport is Northern Ireland’s gateway to the world. Instead of throwing more money on the bonfire of public subsidies, policymakers should spend their energies making sure that no post-Brexit border arrangements put barrier-free access to the airport in jeopardy.
A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy