2013 is a historic year for Belfast International Airport. We are celebrating 50 years on our current site, so, how has the airport performed over the decades, and is it delivering all that it could for Northern Ireland?
First, let’s take a step back in time. There’s no denying that we’ve come a long way since the inaugural BEA Viscount flight from Manchester on 26 September 1963. Or from the day in late October when HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother reopened Aldergrove as a civil airport and inaugurated the present terminal.
The first regular jet service was to Gatwick in ’66 and three years later, passenger numbers hit one million.
More ‘firsts’ followed. In 1977 came the British Airways Belfast-Heathrow shuttle, closely followed by the first trans-Atlantic Jumbo jet charter service to Toronto via Shannon. Amsterdam enjoyed our first scheduled service to a European city.
Then, thirty years ago, the famous moving walkway was installed, and work was completed on the International Pier and the re-location of the check-in area. 1983 also saw the airport change its name to Belfast International.
From ’69 to ’87, passenger numbers doubled to 2 million and by 1999, they hit the 3 million mark, aided greatly a year earlier with the arrival on the scene of easyJet which today operates 23 routes, carries 3.4 million passengers and is Northern Ireland’s main airline by a long way.
We’ve witnessed Concorde, hosted President Clinton, and his successors in that office, developed cargo facilities, met the exacting demands of the G8, attracted Continental Airlines (now United), developed the route network to more than 70 destinations, paid hundreds of millions in business taxes and created and maintained jobs for more than 4,000 people.
Throughout our first fifty years, we’ve witnessed steady, incremental growth. Like other businesses, we’ve had to contend with decades of unrest as well as weathering the tests that accompanied three recessions. And all the time, we continued to invest and re-invest in the facility.
Well, we managed 5 million passengers in 2006 before the latest severe and prolonged recession took hold. Numbers slipped to 4.3 million last year but we’re confident that 5 million, indeed well north of that figure, will be achieved in coming years.
Recovery will come and be aided by local political stability – allowing for occasional reverses, as we’ve seen – along with a concerted drive to develop the tourism product and boost international connectivity with existing and new airlines, we can resume a growth trajectory.
We believe we have a central role in re-building the local economy. In essence, we contend that each new meaningful route that is opened, and new airline that is attracted to the marketplace, ought to be treated in the same light as an inward investment.
Why? Well, for every one million new passengers we serve, the industry standard indicates you create 1,000 jobs. Double the current passenger throughput and Northern Ireland could enjoy up to 5,000 new jobs. For that to happen, all sides must be on the same page and create the circumstances and wherewithal to develop the sector.
To achieve what is a fully realisable goal, given the right conditions, we will be working with Government to exploit the resources available to us. If we want to attract tourists from Scandinavia, Germany, Canada and the United States, and take a bigger slice of the market currently dominated by our nearest neighbour because of its direct international access, then we must show some grit, imagination and energy. The prize is not inconsequential.
Air Passenger Duty (APD) levels don’t help. We were told that to eliminate APD on domestic, Band A routes, would cost anything up to £80 million, and that that would have to be borne by the local administration. However, there is as yet no counter-argument to demonstrate whether, if the removal of APD attracted appreciable additional tourist numbers, their spending power locally would actually lead to a net gain for the local economy.
Let’s now have that debate, only this time make it an informed discussion with facts and figures that set out ‘benefit’ as well as ‘cost’ in models we all understand.
Belfast International handles 50,000 tonnes of cargo each year or 200 tonnes every weekday on up to 20 flights. This is an economic ‘lifeline’ for Northern Ireland and as we continue to talk about the feasibility of establishing Enterprise Zones, it would seem logical to place the airport front and centre in the debate.
The airport has considerable non-operational land for development. Transport costs to air carriers such as Fed Ex, DHL, TNT and UPS would be negligible and a ‘cluster’ of export-orientated enterprises could be nurtured on site. Just as we are willing to work with Ministers to develop the passenger side of the business, we would welcome the opportunity to set out how we could help deliver on manufacturing and exporting.
Since 1963, there have been five changes in ownership, the most recent involving the sale by Abertis and Aena, the current shareholders in the airport, to ADC & HAS Airports Worldwide based in Houston, Texas. It is expected that the transaction will close in late summer or early autumn.
ADC & HAS Airports Worldwide (ADC & HAS) is a privately-held, multi-national company with a proven track record of successful investment, development and operation of airports. The company’s operations span the globe, with a headquarters in Houston, an office in the Philippines and operations in Costa Rica and Ecuador.
ADC & HAS Airports Worldwide brings together the operational and technical resources of The Houston Airport System, the airport privatisation experience of the Airport Development Corporation (ADC), and the financial strength of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) − one of Canada’s largest pension plans.
ADC & HAS develops, invests in and operates airports globally with a primary focus in the Americas, Asia and opportunistically, in the rest of the world.
We see this as a very positive vote of confidence in Belfast International airport, and, as we open another new chapter in the airport’s history, we look forward to working with the new shareholder to further and significantly develop the potential of this asset.
Belfast International is hungrier than ever for success. We will confront and see off challenges in the coming fifty years, and I am confident that we will also witness considerable development and growth. And if we can persuade ‘Northern Ireland Plc’ to share our aspirations, then the sky really is the limit.
Belfast International Airport
Belfast, BT29 4AB
028 9448 4848