Belfast International Airport has a vital role in developing Northern Irish economy
He'd never even been on a plane when he got his first job at Belfast International Airport, reflects business development director Uel Hoey as he looks back on 25 years in Aldergrove
Is working at Belfast International a career or a way of life for you?
I never had a set vision of my working life through school or university.
I spent the first couple of months at Queen's studying dual courses in computer science and French, alongside my core business administration module, in order to crystallise in my mind which path to take. In the end I graduated a few years later none the wiser about career paths (but knowing how to clear a snooker table).
I came to Belfast International Airport as a temporary information desk assistant on a 12-week contract, via an advert in Ballymena Jobmarket, in September 1988.
I've found the aviation industry to be a fascinating and dynamic one.
How did you get started in the business?
At that stage I had never flown, and I think perhaps I had only been to the airport on one previous occasion. In the end they phoned and offered me the job – and I had the great honour of being the first bloke to work on the airport information desk in its (then) 25-year existence.
Those initial three months working with 15 excellent lady colleagues was the most profoundly educational era of the 26 years which I have now enjoyed working in the airport.
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Do you have any regrets about anything you've done or anything that's happened since you've been working there?
I try not to dwell negatively on 'anything I've done'. Some events work for you and some work against you. I suppose the most regrettable events I can recall were back in my early days working in the airport – incidents like Lockerbie and Kegworth, where many people lost their lives and which were tangibly close to the environment I was working in.
Name the three people to whom you owe your success, in order of importance.
From my perspective key influences have been Jack McConnell, the airport chief executive when I first started, who had faith and confidence in me; Jim Dornan, a subsequent chief executive, who took the decision to promote me to a director within the organisation and, from a general business standpoint, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who brought his business to Belfast International Airport in the infancy of easyJet and completely changed the industry.
How has the sale of the airport last year to ADC&HAS affected its operations?
Airports Worldwide (formerly ADC&HAS) has focused strongly on the business and commercial development aspects of the airport since last autumn. It has brought a progressive approach to working directly with the airlines. The intensive efforts of the past nine months are now reaping rewards with announcements from easyJet, Virgin Atlantic, Jet2 and Wizz Air in the last month.
How much has the airport lost out to Dublin airport and how is it fighting back?
The last six years or so have been a challenge for everyone economically. The market in Belfast and Northern Ireland has suffered, but not in the early days of the recession to the extent which Dublin Airport suffered, losing as they did over 5m annual passengers between 2008 and 2010.
By necessity there has been a more concerted sortie into the Northern Ireland market in an effort to further replenish traffic volumes, and they are currently drawing in well over a million Northern Ireland resident passengers. This should not be seen as a threat, rather an opportunity.
Belfast International Airport, is a 24-hour, easily accessed, international airport which has an absolutely pivotal role to play in delivering Northern Ireland's future prosperity.
What do you think will be the impact on United Airlines' decision to suspend the Newark service for a short period next year?
The immediate impact of this short-term adjustment in the Belfast schedule has been to re-focus everyone's mind in the Northern Ireland political and commercial realm to just how important the direct daily link to New York is.
North America and Asia are the key markets with regard to inward investment endeavours and it is essential that we are connected to both in an efficient and business-friendly manner. We, and government in Northern Ireland, see United Airlines as a vital business partner in respect of developing the local economy and we remain dedicated to working closely with them in the future.
What is the value to the airport of securing a carrier like Virgin Atlantic?
Our initial feedback from colleagues in Virgin Holidays is that their inception into the Northern Ireland marketplace has been extremely well received and that booking activity on next year's summer Florida programme is very buoyant, and we are also engaging with Virgin to assess other opportunities from Belfast International Airport.