#TheReset: Taking to the skies once more

Brian Ambrose, Chief Executive, George Best Belfast City Airport

Covid-19’s first shock delivered to the UK aviation industry, and indeed Northern Ireland, came in the form of Flybe’s collapse in early March.

Whilst this was the first impact on home soil, it was a stark realisation that Northern Ireland would not emerge unscathed from this pandemic. Lives would sadly be lost, ‘normal’ would become a thing of the past and our economy would bear the brunt of the tremors.

As the pandemic quickly spread and geographical lockdowns became a reality, air travel was paused. Aircraft were put into storage at airfields across the world and the skies cleared for all but essential travel.

Airlines operating from Belfast City Airport quickly grounded all flights with the exception of one daily flight to London Heathrow operated by Aer Lingus to ensure connectivity for key workers.

Connectivity is crucial for Northern Ireland and even more so in times of crisis as medical professionals and other key workers commuted as they battled Covid-19 on the frontline. As a result of one daily flight and very few passengers, our throughput was down by 95%.

With our fixed operating costs northwards of £1 million each month, it would have been logical to mothball the airport for a period of time.

However, the importance of good air connectivity and the strategic importance of Belfast City Airport has always been recognised by the Northern Ireland Executive and its Ministers.

The Executive was keen to ensure connectivity to London Heathrow for key workers and stepped in with a financial package to maintain the link.

We received excellent support from the relevant Stormont Ministers, and were in regular contact with every political party – all eager to assist in whatever way they could. It was welcomed and highlighted the importance of Government listening and acting.

In May this year, at a time when airlines globally were consolidating fleets and removing capacity we sought to find new airline partners to fill the Flybe void.

This was no small feat, but one effectively achieved at the end of July when Aer Lingus announced the launch of six new routes to be operated by Stobart Air.

This includes Edinburgh and Exeter which are already operational; Manchester and Birmingham launched on 14th September; and Leeds Bradford and East Midlands commencing 1st October.

The popular London City route was adopted by British Airways whilst Loganair developed a comprehensive Scottish network flying to Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Inverness, and Eastern Airways resumed connections to Southampton and Teesside International Airport.

Whilst the route network at Belfast City Airport is restored, the aviation industry is preparing for a challenging winter with forecasts suggesting airports will operate at about 40% of the capacity seen in 2019.

With that in mind we are in daily contact with each of our airline partners and continue to work very closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure these routes are fully supported by all parties.

This is not the first time the aviation sector has been hit by global events, and traditionally it is a resilient industry. However, a lack of customer confidence remains on the horizon and with large corporations still not returning to the office, the expected recovery of passenger numbers is slower than first expected.

At Belfast City Airport distancing and hygiene measures are in place throughout the terminal to ensure passengers feel as safe as they can in a public area, and we are seeing passenger numbers slowly but steadily increase.

As this continues, passengers in Northern Ireland are guaranteed choice and value from our three airports which collectively employ thousands and cater to varying demographics.

Belfast City Airport has enjoyed continued investment in our facilities ensuring we have a terminal that caters to the new needs of passengers and one which exceeds their expectations.

Given its location, Belfast City remains the airport of choice for many and is a key selling point for international investors who often cite our location as integral to their decision to come to Northern Ireland.

Our ability to re-establish our route network in such challenging circumstances is testament the strength of and desire for product and offering at Belfast City Airport.

As we move towards this next phase of recovery our aim remains to protect as many jobs as possible by engaging closely with Government to support the routes and help place the region on a firm footing for an economic reset.

This post is part of our #TheReset series in association with Ulster Bank

If you would like to get involved in #TheReset with Ulster Bank either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.