New Heathrow runway 'will create 5,000 jobs in Northern Ireland'
Northern Ireland's crucial air links with London will be secured and strengthened after a long-awaited report backed plans for a third runway at Heathrow, the airport has said. After three years, the Airports Commission - headed by Sir Howard Davies - said Heathrow was best placed to provide "urgently required" capacity.
It has been predicted that up to 5,000 new jobs could be created for Northern Ireland as a result of the extra runway - as business links are strengthened and new export markets open as a result of better links.
The other options included a new runway at Gatwick or expanding an existing runway at Heathrow.
The report says that "increasing capacity at Heathrow would drive significant connectivity benefits... and would enhance access to this network from the rest of the UK by providing new slots for flights from domestic destinations such as Scotland and Northern Ireland".
Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies said the conclusions were "clear and unanimous".
Heathrow's Emma Gilthorpe, who oversees strategy, planning and regulation, told the Belfast Telegraph there was now an opportunity for increased frequency between Northern Ireland and London, as well as securing the existing links.
"It is a fantastic day and hopefully a fantastic day for Northern Ireland," she said.
"We have also spent more time with other communities - Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales - to better understand what's in it for them.
"It's been really stressful seeing a decline in regional routes. I think that this gives us the opportunity to expand capacity, to secure the Belfast routes - which I do think are already secure - and an opportunity to increase frequency to places like Belfast City Airport."
She said Belfast's freight links to Heathrow also made it the "largest domestic channel", with 270,000 kilos moving between the airports each year.
And on the thorny issue of whether the ambitious plans - which are predicted to cost around £17.6bn and could involve the demolition of 800 homes -would get the green light from the Government, Ms Gilthorpe said she was "confident".
The new runway is forecast to add around £147bn in growth to the UK economy by 2050.
"We are confident. The Prime Minister showed great political leadership when he set the commission up, and I'm confident he will show great leadership again.
"Is it deliverable? It is absolutely.
"Since five years ago, when the previous plan was vetoed, we completely changed our approach - we really understood what was needed to make the community comfortable."
Prime Minister David Cameron's spokeswoman said "it is now essential that we take the time to fully consider and reflect on the full body of work and the evidence that the commission has produced". Mr Cameron said a decision will be made by the end of the year.
Sir Howard Davies warned that London's airports were showing signs of "strain" and the entire system would be full by 2040 without action.
On the issue of cutting air passenger duty (APD) on flights, the commission said while it is "aware that the tax is unpopular with airlines" it "considers APD to be a valuable feature of a sustainable aviation industry in the UK".
Belfast City Airport chief executive Brian Ambrose welcomed the findings and said "development at Heathrow could be a decade away, until then, our priority is to maintain our Heathrow capacity until that expansion is realised".
Both British Airways and Aer Lingus currently fly to Heathrow from the airport.
Meanwhile, Belfast International's Graham Keddie said as a region "heavily dependent on air links, it's imperative we have access to London" and said a Heathrow expansion could open up new routes and bring in new airlines.
On the business front, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ann McGregor said "businesses across the UK will be pleased that the Airports Commission has finally come to a clear recommendation".
And she added "Government cannot afford to delay airport expansion any further if it is serious about businesses from across the UK punching above its weight on the global stage".
In support of the proposed expansion, DUP MP Ian Paisley said "it is time to put to put the interests of the whole of the UK at the heart of the Government's decision, it is time to get on with it".
His party colleague Nigel Dodds MP said for Northern Ireland to be "properly served" there needs to be "guaranteed landing slots" for Northern Ireland.
"Whether for tourism or investment, Northern Ireland needs to have direct links into Heathrow as the gateway to London and the main aviation hub for the UK," he said.