NI needs direct links for business coming in, not tourists going out

The good news – Belfast “International” Airport is indeed to become more international over the next few months. The bad news – the “international” links are to, er, Iceland and, er, Florida… oh yes, and Croatia. Iceland and Florida and Croatia are delightful and remarkable places – but this is yet again an example of setting up routes for Northern Ireland tourists to take money out, not for foreign business to bring money in. Northern Ireland will, almost embarrassingly, have direct air links to two of Western Europe’s smallest countries – Malta and Iceland – but not to its largest. No, Germany remains off the map – available only from Dublin or via Great Britain. A quick glance down Assembly questions shows that MLAs continue to miss the point. “What about the link to Toronto?” they ask. They omit to mention that the Northern Ireland ratepayer is already subsidising the link to New York – a link which does not now even operate all year round; and they omit to mention that the flight to Orlando will also be subsidised and only be open to the rich – costing as it does fully £400 more than the equivalent flight/package from Manchester. Most of those paying that subsidy gain almost nothing from it – focused as it is on taking a select few Northern Ireland people out (particularly in the case of Orlando), not the reverse. As it happens, places like Germany and Sweden are every bit as interesting as Iceland and Florida. But we’ll not be easily able to find that out as residents of Northern Ireland, because there’s no direct air route from Belfast. The problem is much more significant than the difficulty it causes us, however. The real issue is that if you are a German or Swedish businessperson planning your next investment, you are not likely to plan it for somewhere you can’t actually get to! We are therefore making it incredibly difficult for us to trade with the people who are our most obvious trading partners. In fact, Northern Ireland’s trade with the Netherlands, a country with which it has a direct air link, is worth almost exactly the same (in terms both of exports and imports) as its trade with Germany – despite the fact the Netherlands has only a fifth of Germany’s population! If we could increase trade with Germany to the same level proportionately, it would literally be worth billions to Northern Ireland – each and every year – making the whole Corporation Tax debate look like small change! We would add further hundreds of millions to this if we did the same with the countries beside or near Germany – Austria, Denmark and Sweden for example. Mixed in with this huge boost would be thousands of jobs, many well paid. Of course, it would take a little more than a direct air link to secure this (actually teaching German at our main University would be a good idea for a start); but without a direct air link, it certainly will not happen. It remains truly astonishing that our efforts are so focused on taking money out of Northern Ireland when surely the objective is to bring money in! It is time we straightened up our flying priorities!

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5 thoughts on “NI needs direct links for business coming in, not tourists going out

  1. frank7778 says:

    Generally flights will fly where there is the demand: it is perhaps a sign of how small (and/or internationally detached) the private sector is that flight locations tend to be so dominated by the holiday market not the business market. In 10 years time, a test of the lower corporation tax and other rebalancing measures, will be whether there is a market to fly to Berlin, Frankfurt, etc.

    • I think you’re half right and half wrong there Frank. Flights will only *continue* to fly where there is demand. An airline like Flybe or Easyjet operate with a very small margin on individual flights, so, in the absence of direct and immediate demand (i.e.holiday-makers) will be reluctant to take on the initial investment risk of a new route without some financial backing from the local govt.

      If a route was introduced from, say Aldergrove to Frankfurt, as Ian might suggest, and it was successful, then the govt would (and should) look to reduce its own financial support. Of course, but “successful” I mean successful to the airline who will see high load factors and a route which still turns a profit after the removal of the subsidy, but clearly also “successful” in that it brings a plane load of German Euros into our shores and flies out a plane load of Northern Irish products and services every day.

  2. Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana says:

    Very thoughtful piece indeed. If there was an air link to Frankfurt, Düsseldorf or for that matter to München from Belfast, that would definitely be helpful in enhancing NI’s appeal (on the German end) as a business destination. Same applies to Sweden. As for the business priorities of airlines (demand and interest in capitalising on the ‘holiday-maker’ market) these destinations, once well marketed, provide plenty and more to a holiday-making market, in NI as well as in DE/SE. Having said that, air connections to NI is a matter that the govt. and the business sector should definitely prioritise, looking at ways of maximising efficiency. If you’re a corporate professional based in NI, for example, and if you have business/professional engagements all day in London and need to get back home for the evening, you need to get to Heathrow for the last flight that departs at 19:45. Had there been a flight that leaves London a wee bit later, at about 21: 15, that would make life a lost easier for businesspeople.

  3. Gareth Blood says:

    Presumably the announcements recently with regard to KLM coming to City to serve Amsterdam, and the announcement of a business class carrier to Barcelona last month constitute steps in the right direction.

    • Literally! Delighted re KLM as it’s a top-notch airline.

      However, we do as much trade with the Netherlands as we do with Germany – in total. If we did as much *per head*, we would by my estimates bring in a further £1 billion every year to the NI economy…

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