Controversial claims that Belfast should have just one airport have prompted an angry reaction.
Brian Ambrose, chief executive of George Best Belfast City Airport, has dismissed the remarks made by the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) at a Commons Select Committee hearing as laughable.
“How do you close Belfast City Airport?” he said.
“We are a privately-owned company. People cannot wish us away. Our competition may wish to debate this further but we are a profitable, privately-owned business.
“This would be like the CEO of Tesco saying that Northern Ireland would be better served if Sainsbury’s and their other competitors disappeared. If he suggested that, everyone would laugh.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and to engage in the debate but the reality is that for someone to close City Airport they would need to be paying around £200m.”
BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan sparked controversy when he told MPs investigating Northern Ireland’s air links with the rest of the UK and beyond that moving to one airport would be a “brave thing to do, but the right thing to do”.
“The people responding to our survey did not see the sense of two airports, 14 miles apart,” he said at Westminster on Wednesday.
“It was an over capacity, and the wrong sort of capacity, because the one that seems the most sensible has got the shortest runway or not the appropriate runway.”
Katie Best, City Airport’s commercial and marketing director, said: “Nobody is ever going to suggest that you close down either airport and put thousands of jobs at risk.
“In a hypothetical situation where you are talking about only having one airport in Northern Ireland, there would be a debate, yes, to say that a 24-hour airport would be the one that would be sustained, but there would also be a strong argument to maintain the airport that people prefer to use, and that's City Airport.”
Meanwhile, Uel Hoey from Belfast International Airport has said there needs to be a debate on air provision in Northern Ireland.
He said the industry was getting bogged down with “local competition” and it was time to look at how an international facility is served in order to drive the Northern Ireland economy forward.
Consumer Council chief executive Antoinette McKeown said the current set-up should stay because it offers passengers a choice, adding: “They are both private concerns. They do not take money from the public purse.
“Since competition was effectively introduced, both airports have doubled in size.”
A Northern Ireland Select Committee is probing air links in light of the Government’s Civil Aviation Bill, which will change the way the industry is regulated.