Belfast City Airport passengers limit lifted
Edwin Poots has given Belfast City Airport the go-ahead to increase passenger numbers.
The Environment minister said removing the restriction would have no impact on the 48,000 per year limit on flights.
Earlier this year the minister said he was minded to remove the bar, but his scrutiny committee at Stormont had urged him to delay a decision until the still-to-start public inquiry on controversial plans to extend the runway was heard.
But Mr Poots, who launched a public consultation exercise on the cap, has not opted for that course.
"Having given the matter careful consideration and taken into account the issues raised in response to the consultation, I have decided to remove the restriction," he said.
The cap was first introduced to ensure the then modest terminal facilities on the east Belfast site were not overcrowded.
But with a new larger terminal now up and running, the airport claimed the retention of the limit was not necessary.
Nearby residents opposed to expansion at the airport argued that while the restriction on flight numbers would remain, lifting the cap would enable carriers to use larger airplanes to carry more people.
They insist that is intrinsically linked to the airport's bid to extend the runway by 600 metres (1,968ft) - a development that would allow heavier planes to land and take off.
Stormont's Environment committee agreed with that view and had called on the minister to postpone his decision until the runway issue was resolved.
It is three years since the airport decided to push ahead with the extension but that proposal has been held up in the planning process.
In October Ryanair pulled its operations out citing frustration at the Government's failure to resolve the issue.
Belfast City Airport Watch (BCAW), a group representing residents opposed to the expansion, said it was furious with Mr Poots' decision.
"The Minister is flying in the face of a recommendation by the Assembly's Environment Committee which said, just weeks ago, that the airport's stipulated passenger limit should remain in place for now," said Dr Liz Fawcett from BCAW.
"There will now be nothing to stop all 48,000 of the permitted annual flights in and out of the airport from using the larger, noisier type of planes which have been operating there - and that will greatly increase the misery of people living under the flight path.
"If further airport expansion is felt desirable in Northern Ireland, there's a perfectly good international airport just 20 miles from Belfast.
"In these circumstances, we can't understand why the Minister is ignoring the needs of the tens of thousands of ordinary people affected by aircraft noise, and placing the commercial interests of one airport above their health and quality of life."
Brian Ambrose, chief executive of the airport, said: "We welcome the Minister's decision to remove the Seats for Sale restriction which allows us to forward plan with certainty helping safeguard the current workforce.
"The Seats for Sale restriction was based on the physical capacity of the old terminal building and had no relevance since we moved operations to the new terminal in 2001.
"The removal follows the airport fulfilling the requirements as set by the department with the installation of a noise and tracking monitoring system.
"The planning agreement, which caps flights at 48,000 in any 12-month period, provides a balance between protecting the interests of residents whilst ensuring the airport can develop within these boundaries and continue to contribute significantly to the local economy."