Air access is key to economic success

Brian-Ambrose5Someone recently suggested to me that Northern Ireland was similar to Cyprus.

Apart from the complete disparity in the sunshine department, there are more comparables than you may think.

Our inhabitants have experienced a fractious history. We have similar population sizes – although Northern Ireland trumps Cyprus by approximately 800,000 citizens. And we both have three public airports.

While the above are all valid comparisons, my learned friend was angling at the fact that both Northern Ireland and Cyprus are located at the very edge of Europe.
Hence, with the absence of a high speed rail connection, air access is critical to the economic prosperity of both.

There are a number of principal strands that underline the importance of air access.

First, the number of people employed in aviation in Northern Ireland and those businesses that directly benefit.

Belfast City Airport directly supports the employment of some 1,600 people who are employed on site, and around 40 companies that are closely affiliated such as car hire, baggage handling and security.

This figure does not take into account the hotels, restaurants, bars, taxis and tourism attractions that the airport feeds.

Away from direct employment, the tourism benefits are obvious.

The continuing success of ni2012 in acting as springboard for future tourism cannot be underestimated.

One in every 18 jobs in Northern Ireland is supported by the tourism economy with nearly 5% of the region’s GDP accounted for by the sector with local aviation contributing significantly to this statistic.

Tourism spend in the Northern Ireland economy currently totals £195 million.

Direct European routes not currently served from Northern could add significantly to this figure.

I’m not suggesting more bucket and spade routes, although competition on these destinations is excellent news for consumers and demand will always be high, but rather select direct routes to countries not currently served.

If we make it easier to travel directly more will travel.

For example, how many of you have visited the capital of Spain and how many would if we had a direct link?

Outbound tourism is also significant.

Research by leading analysts Oxford Economics estimate outbound tourism from Northern Ireland alone supports in excess of 28,000 jobs, with an economic impact of £753 million per year.

Reduced air travel opportunities from Northern Ireland would have a direct negative impact on not only the economy but on a large proportion of those 28,000 jobs.
New direct routes must be sustainable. With a population of 1.8 million there are only certain routes that are commercially viable.

A market must be shown and new services must be given at least a year to bed down before they show a return for airlines who are inundated with pitches from airports, city councils and Governments as to the viability of routes.

Air access also plays a crucial role in trade between Northern Ireland and overseas.

The Northern Ireland Executive is rightly focussed on increasing FDI, research & development with exporting widely acknowledged as a major strand for economic growth. 

Total export of goods from Northern Ireland (excluding to the RoI) are valued at £3.2 billion with 31% of these exports going via air and directly supporting a total of £1 billion annually.

60% of Northern Ireland exports travel via a hub airport highlighting the importance of Northern Ireland’s link with Heathrow, the UK’s only international hub airport providing connections to almost 200 world cities.

Over two thirds of all UK long haul flights originate from London Heathrow, so for Northern Ireland business to benefit from the worldwide market we need to keep this link not only open, but frequent. 

Heathrow will allow for trade to emerging nations and I am delighted that by the end of October 2012, Belfast City will facilitate 10 flights to and from Heathrow daily, with British Airways and Aer Lingus providing competition and regularity of services.

While tourism in Northern Ireland is still an emerging sector, it has levelled off in Cyprus.

Both countries realise the importance of air access for future growth, if we take our eye off air access we both become inward facing island economies.
It’s simply not an option.

That’s why we’ll continue to work closely with local government authorities and the Assembly to ensure Belfast and Northern Ireland is best served on all fronts.

Brian Ambrose is Chief Executive of George Best Belfast City Airport and Chairman of Tourism Ireland.

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