Belfast Buoyed by Enhanced Business and Leisure Connectivity

This year the Belfast aviation market will return to capacity growth after four year-on-year declines, however despite the reduction in capacity, passengers numbers have been on the rise for the past three years and could actually reach a decade high in 2015 as both Belfast International Airport (nee Aldergrove) and George Best Belfast City Airport welcome a number of new air services.

ROUTES EUROPE 2017 will take place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, hosted by a partnership led by Visit Belfast and Invest NI, and supported by Tourism NI, Tourism Ireland, Belfast International Airport, George Best Belfast City Airport and Belfast City Council. It will be held in the in the newly expanded Belfast Waterfront Conference and Exhibition Centre between April 23-25, 2017.

The Northern Ireland capital may have a heritage built on trade through Belfast Harbour and later the shipbuilding industry, but it also has a long aviation industry through the Short Brothers plc, now part of Bombardier Aerospace. The company was the first in the world to make production aircraft and despite initially operating from Rochester in England, it moved to Belfast in 1948. Famous for its biplanes and giant flying boats, Shorts latterly produced turboprop airliners and components for larger aerospace manufacturers before its sale to Canada’s Bombardier Aerospace in 1989.

Although the number of Shorts airliners now flying is diminishing, the company’s legacy lives on Belfast’s commercial aviation sector. Ahead of its formal move to Northern Ireland in the late 1940s, the Air Ministry established Short & Harland Ltd, a joint venture owned 50 per cent each by Harland and Wolff and Shorts to manage a new aircraft factory in Belfast in 1936, producing Bristol Bombays and Handley-Page Hereford bombers.

The following years Shorts established an airfield in central Belfast, beside the factory. Initially known as Sydenham Airport, the facility was opened to commercial traffic in the mid-1980s following interest from airlines as Belfast Harbour Airport and is now the site for the expanding George Best Belfast City Airport.

Just as its aviation heritage developed, Belfast has bloomed as a destination from very humble beginnings after starting out as a small hamlet with fertile land along the mouth of the Lagan. It is now emerging as a developing business and leisure destination as it moves away from its historic industries such as shipbuilding to develop as a centre for the arts, higher education, business, and law. Tourism Ireland hopes to grow foreign visitor numbers from around three million in 2012 to 4.5 million by the end of this decade.

This is helping boost visitor numbers into the city and increasing demand at its two airports. Like most UK airports traffic at Belfast International and Belfast City has been in decline due to the economic recession, but since 2012 passenger demand at Belfast’s airports has been growing, albeit at small margins of 0.1 per cent in 2013 and 0.4 per cent in 2014.

Interestingly, although the number of people flying in and out of Belfast has been growing since 2012, the number of seats available from the Northern Ireland capital has declined by around a fifth since 2010, suggesting there was previously overcapacity in this market.

Last year there were 4,089,690 departure seats available from Belfast International and Belfast City, the lowest level over the past ten years. However, based on published schedules for 2015 this will increase an estimated 4.8 per cent this year to approaching 4.3 million thanks to new services from the likes of easyJet,, KLM, Vueling and Wizz Air

A closer analysis of flight schedules shows that easyJet is the leading carrier in the Belfast market with a 48.2 per cent share of departure capacity from the city’s two airports in may 2015. This is down from 51.5 per cent in the same month last year despite a 3.2 per cent increase in its departure inventory. The reason for the reduction of its capacity share is growth from other operators: Thomas Cook Airlines has grown capacity 79.3 per cent, by 23.4 per cent, british Airways by 17.2 per cent and Flybe by 16.9 per cent between May 2014 and May 2015. Meanwhile, Thomson Airways has returned to the Belfast market and KLM and Vueling are adding news services to Amsterdam and Barcelona, respectively.

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…