Hopes high Germany route will follow Brussels flights from Belfast City Airport
Direct flights from Belfast to Germany could be introduced within the next year, the boss of George Best Belfast City Airport has said.
The airport yesterday launched a new route to Brussels with Brussels Airlines, but the move has raised hopes that the introduction of further European routes could also be in sight.
Belfast City Airport chief executive Brian Ambrose said the routes were "definitely" on the horizon and added that he hoped a Belfast to Germany route could be in place as soon as next winter.
He said: "It will definitely happen. I don't know which airline or in which airport but it will happen.
"Germany has been the target for Northern Ireland for a long time. A few years ago, we were seeking meetings with airlines. Maybe they'd meet us, maybe they wouldn't. But we're just back from the Durban World Routes conference, and we were wall-to-wall in meetings with airlines.
"The market demand is there, it's just a matter of getting an airline across the line. It's getting a little bit late for summer 2016 but we're already working on winter 2016 and summer 2017."
Airport passenger numbers at Belfast City Airport for 2015 are expected to be up 10% on last year, according to the airport, and it's expected that a further 52,000 passengers will use the direct non-stop service to Brussels each year.
The addition of the Brussels Airlines Belfast to Brussels route marks the first air link between the two cities in 14 years.
Flights will operate in the afternoon, five times a week.
Mr Ambrose compared the introduction of the new route to the success seen by Dutch airline KLM, which launched an Amsterdam route just five months ago.
He said: "If you look at our credibility, it's so much easier now to go to an airline like Brussels and say, 'Take a look at what happened with KLM, they started an Amsterdam route, their flights are all full and they're now expanding,' so it's so much easier to see it happen for Brussels, so it's not theoretical.
"In exactly the same way as with KLM, they'll start with a single daily; if the demand is there, they'll up-scale the aircraft and increase the frequency. The good thing with Brussels is that there's a business and a leisure demand and that gives you a year-round product."
The business and conference market will be the main driver behind the route - but it's also expected to be popular with politicians and tourists. It is also hoped that the route will see many tourists who will use Brussels as a hub to travel on to other parts of Europe.
Peter McMinn, managing director of Belfast-based Travel Solutions, said: "We've been running trips to Belgium using Dublin Airport departures for events like Grand Prix races and battlefield tours, so the addition of a Belfast air route is an excellent opportunity and very welcome.
"Next year brings the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and there will be considerable interest in that. Brussels also offers another route for Northern Ireland fans travelling to the Euros - it's only 50km from the French border. We would also be keen to look at developing a package for the Christmas markets next year."
Meanwhile, Vueling's Belfast-to-Barcelona route has experienced a lower than expected load rate. Tickets are on sale for 2016 but Mr Ambrose said there was still a commitment to the route.
"It's had a slower start than KLM but, as an airline, as a brand, they are less well known here," he said.
If you go to Spain they're a massive airline there but they've had to build a profile here. They're sitting with a 60% load. We'd want to see that move to 70 or 80%. They're slightly behind the curve but the route is doing well and we've a total commitment from the airline moving forward."