The proposal to lengthen the runway at George Best Belfast City Airport may cause alarm among some residents' groups, but it will surely be welcomed by the travelling public. The £10m investment would open up a host of new destinations.
The plan, which is still being evaluated by City Airport's Spanish owners, would involve adding a 600m extension to the Holywood end of the existing 1,829m long runway. The additional length, which would be contained within the airport's perimeter fence, would enable aircraft to take off with a full tank of fuel instead of a half tank as at present, thereby increasing their range.
In order to reassure residents, airport chief executive Brian Ambrose has said any proposal would be subject to a planning application, at which stage it would be subject to public scrutiny. In addition, he pledges that there are no plans for the airport to be used by wide-bodied aircraft
Although City Airport says it is not under pressure to lengthen the runway, Ryanair has made no secret of its desire to see such a move, and yesterday's announcement is scarcely a coincidence. The Dublin carrier, which launches next week, has aspirations to develop its Belfast hub with flights to more Continental destinations, and a longer runway is the main pre-requisite.
While City Airport is entitled to strive for growth, a balance always has to be struck between the needs of airline passengers and the interests of the local population. The airport's popularity is based on its easy access to the city centre, but by the same token, its proximity to residential areas must be taken into account.
As a result of the recent planning exercise, noise monitoring equipment and a radar flight tracking system are being installed at the airport, which will mean accurate data can be obtained. But a more meaningful move, as far as residents are concerned, would be to route more aircraft over Belfast Lough instead of across the city.
Another welcome move would be to improve public transport links with the airport. A railway station with a walkway to the terminal should be the ultimate goal, but in the meantime access to Sydenham train halt needs to be improved.
With the cap on passenger numbers at City Airport due to be removed, the main curb will be the night-time curfew. While there may be a case for stretching this to permit, for example, a 10pm arrival from London Heathrow, there must be no question of the airport being open all hours.
City Airport is getting busier, and facilities must keep pace. The runway proposal should be developed, but the process must be transparent.
As air travel expands, City Airport has a key role to play on the aviation front. But Aldergrove - unconstrained as it is by nearby housing - should still be the focus for major growth.