We’re flying high, insists airport boss, but it’s now or never for cutting air passenger tax in Northern Ireland
Belfast City Airport chief executive Brian Ambrose has seen some difficult times, including the budget airline Ryanair pulling out six years ago. Now, things are on the up, he assures John Mulgrew
When budget airline giant Ryanair dramatically pulled out of Belfast almost six years ago, the City Airport lost almost a million passengers, and at one stage was at risk of going under.
But according to Belfast City Airport chief Brian Ambrose (56), 2015 will turn out to have been a record year for passengers, and cash flow.
And he’s celebrating his 40th year in aviation, kicking off his long career at Bombardier/Shorts in east Belfast as a 16-year-old apprentice.
But just last week, Michael O’Leary revealed he was bringing Ryanair back to Belfast, only this time to Belfast International Airport — an airport he once referred to as “Lough Neagh International Airport” — a reference to its distance from the capital.
But Mr Ambrose said he wasn’t disappointed the low cost carrier was opting to go with the competition.
The Strangford man says: “We believe that even with that new competition we will continue to grow.” He added: “On almost every metric, 2015 will close out as a record year.
“Passenger numbers will be north of 2.7 million, and it’s good, because the last time we were in that sort of territory, we only had a couple of airlines. Now we have a fantastic spread of airlines. We have grown, but have taken another sizeable step forward in our ambition to have a niche European network.”
That started with Faro, Palma and Malaga, while it’s added Alicante, along with city destinations such as Amsterdam, Brussels and Barcelona.
While some have already had a strong few months, links such as Barcelona — through Spanish carrier Vueling — have been a “slower burn”.
“There’s a good strong mixture of sun routes, but we really see ourselves linking up the main city pairs,” he said.
Mr Ambrose — who went to Regent House School in Newtowards — began at Belfast City as operations director, and became chief executive when Bombardier sold the airport in 2003 for £35m to the Spanish company Ferrovial.
He trained as an engineer at Belfast Met, before doing his Masters at Ulster University.
“I started off with Shorts as an apprentice in 1976. I spent the first decade in engineering, and then joined the sales team as an engineer. I worked in North America and the Far East,” he said.
Ryanair’s decision to pull out nearly sounded the airport’s death-knell at the time.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph in 2012, Mr Ambrose said the year after it left “was a tough challenge”.
“When you lose a third of your business overnight, you could have put the lights out here and paid off 1,500 people,” he said.
Michael O’Leary’s airline cited delays in extending Belfast City Airport’s runway as a reason for leaving. But five years on, Brian Ambrose says it’s “not required” and not part of the airport’s 10-year plan. “The new aircraft are currently ranging to the south of Spain.”
And on an optimistic note about Bombardier’s new CSeries jet, which has seen disappointing sales, Mr Ambrose said: “With the new CSeries, we will be able to range The Canaries from here.
“There’s not the population to do the long-haul out of here. The current runway will service every area we aspire to.”
Speaking about Ryanair setting up at rival Belfast International — bringing direct flights to Gatwick and five other links to be announced later in the year — he said: “We’ve similar passenger numbers, compared to when they were with us. When they left, we lost 900,000 passengers.
“We have been working at rebuilding that,” he said.
“If you look at where we were then, and where we are now, we are much stronger.
“We have Aer Lingus, British Airways, KLM, while Flybe are still the main business partner.” He said if Belfast International Airport is “focusing as a low-cost airport ... that’s for them to focus on how they carve up that pie”.
As for new routes, he’s optimistic about getting other carriers in the IAG portfolio — the airline group which owns British Airways and Aer Lingus, both of which fly from Belfast City Airport.
That could include airlines such as Spain’s Iberia.
He says he isn’t worried about either BA or Aer Lingus pulling their London Heathrow services — the airlines are competing against each other, and owned by the same firm.
“Willie Walsh stated that the Aer Lingus brand would be maintained,” he said.
He’s also had to deal with a number of blows to the confidence of the tourism industry, such as the attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, the SARS outbreak of 2002, and the terror attacks in Paris.
“I think if there is no recurrence of a Paris-like incident in the near future, history would tell you that we rebound very quickly,” he said.
Earlier this year, one of the biggest global technology events ever held here — Web Summit spin-off Moneyconf — revealed it would not return to Belfast next year, due to Northern Ireland’s poor air links.
That’s something Brian Ambrose has poured cold water on. He said despite Belfast’s burgeoning tourism sector, the city is still considerably smaller than Dublin.
“If you look at Dublin’s network and think we can put a daily flight on if Dublin has a daily flight, you don’t understand the market.”
Speaking about the newly appointed First Minister, Arlene Foster — who was also formerly Enterprise Minister — he said he had confidence in her ability in the top job.
“Arlene brings a wealth of experience and understands the importance of connectivity,” he said.
And on the long-running concern in the industry over air passenger duty (APD) — a tax on flights which has already been scrapped in the Republic — Mr Ambrose said a report claiming that ending the duty would leave a massive tax shortfall was based on “assumptions.”
“It made assumptions, we don’t need to make assumptions. We can bypass that, talk to the airlines and get hard facts. When you do that, a reduction or scrapping would be of a net benefit to the region.
“We need to stop talking about it, and get on and do something about it.”
Belfast City Airport now connects the city to a range of European routes, but also focuses on linking Belfast to London, through two direct Heathrow flights and its London City Airport link.
Looking to the future, Brian says he’s confident the airport can continue to grow its European network, but doesn’t believe it has the long-haul route scale that Dublin boasts.
When not sitting at his desk — which looks over the rather less interesting view of the Sydenham Bypass, rather than a busy runway — he’s very much a family man, alongside a love of sport — and going through a difficult spell with his beloved Manchester United.
He’s also chairman of Tourism Ireland, and father to four children, Ruth, Claire, Stephen and Emma — all in their 20s.
“We’ve had four weddings in two years and 10 months,” he said.
Looking into 2016, Mr Ambrose forecasts further growth. And in the next 10 years he’s confident the airport could see four million passengers passing through the east Belfast hub each year.
Next week, the Big Interview speaks to Des Moore, head of First Trust Bank
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. I have tended to learn more from the example of others rather than words. It has been my privilege to have worked with a number of inspirational leaders and learn from my parents’ example.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Find a job doing something you enjoy and you are well on your way to a successful career.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Investing in key personnel has allowed me to surround myself by high performers and I occasionally give them some credit for what we have achieved.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. I have now been working in the aviation sector for 40 years, little of which was planned, and therefore have given no thought to an alternative. I have, however, enjoyed supporting the tourism sector over the past eight years so have been privileged to spend my time in two vibrant sectors — aviation and tourism.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A Family, church activities and travel ensures I am never bored or idle.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Manchester United. However at the moment it is a bit painful to watch.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. Football — average, tennis — poor, school rugby — played alongside Phillip Matthews (for three weeks until I was demoted to the cross-country team).
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. Hilary and I tend to plan our holidays in early spring and late autumn and then enjoy the summer months at home on the shores of Strangford Lough. As chairman of Tourism Ireland I have enjoyed rediscovering the many wonderful places to visit, from the Ring of Kerry to the stunning Antrim Coast.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I have almost finish two books I received at Christmas — Yeonmi Park (a young lady who recently escaped from North Korea) and Chuck Swindoll’s book on Abraham (somewhat older story).
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. I have been blessed with a close family and, even though I lived through the Troubles we were largely unaffected in any direct sense and so enjoyed a very normal and happy early life in the Ards Peninsula.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. I leave economic predictions to the plethora of economists who assure us that the economy should experience modest growth, but that could be plus or minus.
Q. How would you assess your time at Belfast City Airport?
A. I have experienced the changes from a portacabin and converted hanger to a modern gateway. The one constant, however, has been the pride, professionalism and dedication of the growing team of staff who make Belfast City Airport a special place to work.