Belfast International passenger numbers surge with new US route on cards
Belfast International Airport says it is "very close" to securing a replacement direct flight to the US as passenger numbers reached record levels of 5.15 million for 2016.
According to the airport, the amount of people passing through the arrivals and departures halls increased by more than 17% last year.
However, the hub is losing Northern Ireland's only transatlantic service, to Newark, after United Airlines announced it was pulling the plug. Its last flight will be on Monday.
But airport boss Graham Keddie says it is "pursuing a number of positive leads" for a new service to America.
He said growth was driven by inbound visitors, as well as those from the Republic, and he was confident Aldergrove could increase passengers to 5.4 million this year.
A number of airlines operate from the International, including easyJet and Ryanair.
The Irish budget carrier returned to Belfast after a six-year hiatus.
"Our passenger numbers in 2016 were excellent. This year, we expect to set a new record of somewhere in the region of 5.4 million, which will surpass the last best performance in 2007 by about 100,000," Mr Keddie said.
"Even though we will shortly lose the United flight to the States, we will not be deflected from our growth curve. Of course, our airlines are instrumental in delivering the welcome boost with increased capacity and frequency and exciting new routes to Germany, Italy and Poland."
He said December's figures were "way beyond expectations", and the airport had enjoyed record months since September last year.
"United leaves a gap that we are working hard with the Government to fill and we are pursuing a number of positive leads.
"As a region, Northern Ireland has to have direct access to the US, which will underpin the inward investment drive. We have the prospect of reduced corporation tax to look forward to next year, but its impact could be blunted if we don't have direct, point-to-point access for potential inward investors to Northern Ireland.
"Canada, too, is an important business and tourism market and we have no doubt that Northern Ireland could sustain a Canadian service.
"We did so in the past and there are even stronger grounds for believing we could do the same again."
Meanwhile, George Best Belfast City Airport suffered a small drop in passengers in 2016.
Numbers fell by around 1.2% for the year, attributed to the loss of its link to London Gatwick in March. It had a total of 2.67m passengers during the course of 2016.
Katy Best, commercial and marketing director at George Best, said: "2016 was another very strong year for Belfast City Airport, in which we almost matched our record passenger numbers of 2015 despite losing more than 250,000 passengers through the cessation of our Gatwick route in March.
"This consistency has been secured through the introduction of new routes, such as Alicante, and through working with Flybe to ensure more passengers than ever before flew on its Belfast City Airport flights."
The announcement of the end of Northern Ireland's only transatlantic air route due to an EU block on bailout cash was blasted as an "international embarrassment".
United Airlines was due to receive a £9m subsidy, two-thirds of which was coming from the Executive, to retain the link.
Some, however, including the Green Party's NI leader Steven Agnew, criticised the decision to give cash to a multi-national airline as a "vanity project".