Belfast Telegraph

Belfast City Airport was on brink of closure after Ryanair exit

By Claire McNeilly

Ryanair's decision to withdraw from Northern Ireland nearly sounded the death-knell for George Best Belfast City Airport and 1,500 jobs, its boss has said.

Brian Ambrose’s comments came during an interview with the Belfast Telegraph in which he stressed the importance of the budget carrier to the local economy.

Ryanair pulled out of the province 14 months ago after a public inquiry into the proposed runway extension suffered a further delay.

“Last year was a tough challenge because when you lose a third of your business overnight, you could have put the lights out here and paid off 1,500 people,” said Mr Ambrose.

“At one stage it was as serious as that.”

Belfast City has plans to build an extension that would increase the current length of the runway by 470m to 2,299m for take-off and 2,059m for landing — but those plans have been in limbo for three-and-a-half years.

Ryanair finally ran out of patience, and its decision to withdraw its planes saw the company take 900,000 passengers with it.

“A third of our business went overnight,” recalled Mr Ambrose.

“City centre businesses even said they noticed a marked downturn when Ryanair pulled out.

“They said it had a massive impact (on the economy). They said you literally knew the weekend that it stopped.”

Ryanair has, however, promised to do business in Northern Ireland again, pending the runway issue being resolved.

“They said there are 10 destinations we will bring in — the day we get a green paper for the runway,” said Mr Ambrose, whose airport has been striving hard to make up the lost business since Ryanair departed.

“That’s what’s sitting there as a lost opportunity to us in Northern Ireland and that’s what comes back onto the table.

“Ryanair have made a commitment that they will come back, and we’re losing out as a|province until the decision is made.”

Opposition to the proposed runway extension and seats for sale issue — which has restricted the number of passengers using the airport to two million per annum — has come from Belfast City Airport Watch, an umbrella residents’ group which campaigns for tougher noise controls at the east Belfast airport.

But Mr Ambrose refutes the suggestion that all local people are against such proposals, which are designed to expand the airport.

“I’ve worked 35 years in aviation and I’ve spent most of it working in east Belfast — and I can’t remember the last a time any resident from east Belfast was in touch with this office to complain,” he added.

“We have excellent relationships with the local community, and there are between one and two noise complaints a month.”

New blame game over runway extension deadlock

Stormont is being blamed for thwarting a potential £10m investment at George Best Belfast City Airport, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.

Airport boss Brian Ambrose claimed a failure by the Department of the Environment’s (DoE) Planning Service to clear the way for a runway extension has been stemming economic growth for over three years now.

But Environment Minister Alex Attwood hit back at the claims, stating that it was the airport itself that had been dragging its feet with regard to providing information vital to a public inquiry into the runway extension.

The ongoing saga has already cost Belfast City its biggest customer — Ryanair.

“I’m now dealing with my sixth (Environment) minister, which just beggars belief in a region where the Executive talks about the economy as being a top priority,” said Mr Ambrose.

“They are holding back millions in investment because we can’t get things through planning.”

He added: “There’s £10m linked to the work we’re trying to do with the runway extension.”

But the Environment Minister challenged that view, claiming that Belfast City Airport bosses themselves have been delaying the process by failing to provide environmental and other crucial information to the Planning Appeals Commission, which will facilitate a public inquiry.

Mr Attwood said planning permission must be subject to a “thorough, proper process”.

He added: “The ball is in the airport's control and if they want the game to start, they must provide the further information and then let's have the public inquiry.”

Mr Attwood also said he has instigated an independent consultation into aircraft noise levels at Belfast City, the results of which are due in early summer and could be pivotal in the runway extension argument.

Belfast City Airport Factfile 2011:

Flights (in & out) 39,025

Passengers 2.2m

Destinations 33

Main airlines 4

Tour operators 3

Belfast Telegraph