Belfast Telegraph

Business 'being lost' due to lack of air links

By David Elliott

Northern Ireland's economy is losing out on business because of a lack of flight connections to emerging markets through London's Heathrow Airport.

Those were the words of local business leaders at a conference in Belfast run by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and the airport's owner BAA yesterday.

"The reality of the situation is that in many cases potential trading partners would rather do business with a country to which they have frequent direct air links," Mark Nodder, Group Managing Director of Ballymena-based Wright Group, said.

"We know first-hand there are many business opportunities that are currently being lost and companies need the help of Government to address this."

Ann McGregor, CEO of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, said both inward investment and export potential are being hindered by the airport's lack of flight options to the likes of India, Brazil and China.

"To support trade and Northern Ireland's economy, it is vital for our firms to be able to make connections to these emerging markets," she said. "That means the UK Government's aviation policy must consider all options that could help our businesses seek new sources of growth.

"While there are more ambitious long-term projects for aviation that can be examined, in the near term Heathrow must continue to be part of the solution if Northern Ireland is not to miss out on trading opportunities."

The conference also saw the release of a survey by Oxford Economics commissioned by Heathrow.

It found that £1 billion worth of Northern Ireland's exports are dependent on air travel while Heathrow supports 1,000 tourism jobs and 900 airport jobs in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, capital projects - such as building work - have brought in £13.3m for Northern Ireland suppliers in 2010 and visitors travelling via Heathrow brought in £21.4m in the same year.

"The centre of gravity in the world economy is shifting and Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole should be forging new links with emerging markets," Ross Baker, BAA Strategy Director, said.

"Instead, we are edging towards a future cut off from some of the world's most important markets, with Paris and Frankfurt already boasting more flights to the three largest cities in China than Heathrow, our only hub airport. These poor trade links have a direct impact on Northern Ireland. Growth won't wait."