To Stansted yesterday for a meeting, flying Ryanair from Belfast City while I still can, and pondering on their withdrawal of services from the end of October. At first it seemed very bad news for travellers although apparently a bonanza for residents. Justifiably, it prompted debate about the inability of our Ministers to make decisions, yet again, and probably made people outside Belfast wonder why it’s so easy to get a runway extension in Eglinton but not in the more politically powerful East and South Belfast. My packed flight (apart from the seats they are not allowed to fill at the moment) was evidence that Ryanair are unlikely to be pulling out for financial reasons.
However, the last couple of weeks have seen announcements of new services. Flybe will expand their operations to include Gatwick, Bristol, East Midlands and Liverpool: all except the first fill Ryanair gaps, leaving only Stansted and Prestwick without replacements. Stansted will be a loss to some, but I’m sure another airline will be interested; and Prestwick travellers can take a Glasgow flight and end up nearer to where they actually want to be. In addition, we have a new service to Cork from Manx2. Yes, we’ll all have to pay a bit more, but that’s as it should be because we should be flying less often anyway.
This quick reaction from two other airlines prompts the question whether both Ryanair and the runway extension are surplus to requirements. Anyone who has ever made the long journey into the centre of a number of other UK cities from an outlying airport will understand the value of Belfast City’s location. But that location quite rightly also restricts the scale of its activities. In my opinion the airport works best as a business-oriented operation, with smaller aircraft flying to mainly UK and Irish destinations, leaving Aldergrove - and Dublin - to pick up the majority of the holiday traffic.
Such an airport will not need the expensive and controversial runway extension. However, conflict with residents will not entirely vanish. The one thing a business traveller wants from their day in London, Manchester or Glasgow is a full day. That means early departures, as at present, and later arrivals, perhaps to 11pm. It’s possible that a combination of the economic situation and environmental awareness may lead to a decrease in the number of flights, but the timing will probably get no better. My own experience of living under the flight path in Stranmillis, and then close by but not on the direct approach in Belmont, has been that the noise is by no means intolerable. Cities need airports and they are noisy, as are many other aspects of city life. The question of degree should continue to debated between the airport operators, residents, business interests and the state.