Airport figures taking off thanks to upsurge in business travellers
The annual growth in passenger numbers at Belfast International Airport was the second highest of all UK regions, according to new statistics released by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
It handled 4.3m passengers last year, an increase of 5% or 215,000 on 2011, a performance it puts down to a recovery in business travel.
"Despite challenging conditions in the aviation sector and the wider economy, Belfast International Airport has demonstrated strong growth, in excess of 7.5% over the last three years," business development director Uel Hoey said.
"We have seen signs of recovery in the business travel market, and tour operators and airlines continue to offer great value flight and holiday options."
Mr Hoey also said the airport was going to try and secure services to Canada and Asia, as well as other routes to mainland Europe.
Despite the recovery, the airport is still flying one million less passengers than at its peak in 2008 and blamed Dublin Airport's "offensive" into Northern Ireland.
Dublin Airport said last week that half a million Northern Ireland passengers passed through its gates last year, a 15% increase on 2011 and double the amount it flew in 2010. It counted passengers flying out of the airport rather than both ways, as counted by the CAA.
Meanwhile, George Belfast City Airport flew 2.2m passengers last year, a slight fall from the 2.4m it flew in 2011 which it blamed on the loss of bmibaby.
"The airport saw a small drop in passenger numbers last year due in the most part to the closure of airline bmibaby and the withdrawal of its 11 routes," a spokesperson said.
"We expect passenger figures for 2013 to be up around 20% on the previous year, boosted by the arrival of Aer Lingus and British Airways.
"With Aer Lingus beginning direct European services to Palma, Faro and Malaga at the end of March and as Northern Ireland's sole gateway to Heathrow, we expect 2013 to be one of the busiest years in our history.
The CAA listing included only individual figures for the top 20 UK airports and didn't list City of Derry Airport's passenger numbers.
UK airports as a whole handled 221 million passengers during 2012 according to the CAA, an increase of 0.6% (1.4 million) on 2011.