You might not realise it, but Northern Ireland’s air transportation links with the rest of the world are controlled by what amounts to a cartel. Cartels in the world of aviation are practically as old as flight itself. This cartel relies on regulation, restriction and operational inflexibility of aircraft type and the ability of airports to set uncompetitive rates. It is for example £28.99 per ton of aircraft and £20.30 per passenger plus security charges to leave from the City on an international flight compared to £15.18 per ton and £17.55 at the International. The City is able to charge uncompetitive rates because the length of runway dictates both the type of plane and how much fuel it can carry therefore its route. It also has operational restrictions on flights, their timing and the number of them. But most importantly due to the aforementioned handicaps it can set a non-commercial rate because government employees and business travellers have their ticket paid for them which equates to a de facto subsidy to be uncompetitive.
“The whole infrastructure of air travel was, and is, part of government policy. It is not a natural development of a free economic system – at least not in the way that is claimed. The same is true of the roads, of course.”
The City airport is far from unique in proximity to Belfast. Luxembourg and Copenhagen airports are both 24 hours and are about as near to their parent city as the George Best. Copenhagen airport moves 30 million passengers a year and is situated on an island with a population of 834,000 compare this to the City’s 2.5 million and the Internationals 5 million flown each year. Because FlyBe’s fleet consists mainly of aircraft suitable for short runways like the City and 99% of Easy Jets fleet are A-320 variants which like longer runways and operate on low yield routes on which competition is impossible at the International, both have carved out their own monopoly. Of the 93 flights out of Northern Ireland from both airports 79 were operated by Flybe and Easyjet. Whilst within a certain political party the cry is no return to the status quo, in aviation circles the cry is is no leaving the status quo.
“We were sorry to leave, but we had no choice when we were promised a runway extension within 12 months and three years after flying here we still hadn’t a runway extension.”
Heathrow is arguably the most important airport in the world and a lifeline for Northern Ireland. Since 2001 the number of weekly flights has fallen from 91 to just 48 next week. IAG group the parent company of BA and Aer Lingus operate a monopoly on the route by using Heathrow and the City’s restrictions. Demand for these flights has not gone down since 2001! What of Dublin? If you play about with an online“travel fare aggregator” you will find surprisingly that on routes with no competition like Dubai the lack of passenger duty does not appear to be passed on to the customer and volume through the UK airports remains the biggest downward pressure on price. This means that Dublin Airport is quite content for the situation of “compartmental” operations in the North. Luxembourg Airport has many international flights and is an important freight hub despite being virtually as close to Frankfurt and Brussels as Dublin is to Belfast.
The solution to our problem is pretty straightforward especially when the third Heathrow runway comes on stream, close one of the airports. As there is no political or legal will to either deal with monopoly pricing or lengthening the runway, nor any desire to lift any restrictions on passenger numbers or flight times, the City is incapable of being that Airport. This makes the International the obvious choice. I would, however, put forward another alternative. I would suggest building a new airport at Kilroot
The closure of Kilroot leaves Northern Ireland with a large brownfield site and an economic void that won’t be filled by a call centre. It sits on the County Antrim side of Belfast, on a railway and is approximately one mile from a dual carriageway to Belfast. The shore it sits on runs in the direction of the prevailing south-west wind so shares the aspect of our other runways. The Lough in front of the shore is shallow, no more than 9 metres and it is protected from the worst storms that generally appear from the North. Geology in the area, unlike Japan, is sound so involves no insurmountable obstacle to construction or operation. Nor would it occur the same construction costs, the City itself, after all, is built on reclaimed land.
As the runway(s) would sit parallel to the shore in Belfast Lough noise pollution would be minimal if not non-existent and 24-hour unrestricted operation possible. Nagoya airport in Japan which sits on a man-made Island more extensive than what is envisaged here, due to the amount of land available shore side, flies 10 million passengers a year and is currently in the process of adding a second runway! The International and City combined is 7.5 million. This will expand exponentially once passenger duty ends and Heathrow’s third runway opens. Nagoya is a major freight hub which is the future, a future the British Isles is not really equipped to deal with given the numerous operating restrictions placed on airports making the choice of Kilroot obvious as a freight hub. Nagoya also has port facilities something which the International will never have is the ability of cruise ships to dock directly at the airport. Cruise ships being vital now to the Irish tourist industry.
The cost of course might be more expensive than developing the International but would suffer none of the restrictions which in future will become more limiting and a fraction of the legal hurdles. We would gain the benefit of clearing an eyesore from the County Antrim coast at the same time causing less environmental damage than either two existing airports. The building of an airport would not be trivial, it would provide long-term employment in the region for the best part of a decade during construction. Simply put it would be the largest infrastructure project in Ireland. It would dovetail with the Great Victoria transport hub. It would provide certainty in the unstable period around Brexit. More importantly, it shows we have that can do attitude something we have all come up short in. It demonstrates we are prepared to put the wealth generated by the sale of the City and its development in the game rather than squander it like we did with the peace dividend.
The sale of the City and the adjacent Kinnegar logistics base will release the most valuable tract of land in Northern Ireland onto the market. A brownfield site which would have limited planning restrictions with regards height for a major portion of it should be the driver that gives Belfast that critical mass to sustain to sustain all the culture, restaurants, services and especially retail that people crave. Would it be optimistic to suggest the population of Belfast would increase 15-20% on the development of the City site? An opportunity is here to make Belfast a truly international city. With the opening of a new airport at Kilroot, Bombardier and other industrial concerns can be moved there or the County Antrim side freeing yet more land based on success and demand. Not since London Docklands or the fall of the Wall has any City in Europe presented such an opportunity! The only way I can describe it is Sim City for real. Major simultaneous construction projects at Kilroot and the City would invariably create an economic snowball effect to free us from being public purse junkies. All without inconveniencing a single home dweller.
What of the International? As it also sits on a brownfield site and development would start in the next decade I imagine the pressure on affordable housing will still be there, there might be a requirement for more industrial sites. Building Kilroot puts the International in the bank for ten years. New town? New Industrial site? Film studio? A Mid Ulster Corridor? That is something you won’t get if you ignore Kilroot and the once in a lifetime opportunity it provides.
“Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.”
Winston Spencer Churchill.
Gopher is a keen traveller who enjoys minimising flight times, the duration spent waiting on connecting flights and airports with seamless transfers to and from my hotel.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.