A long-awaited air route from Northern Ireland to Brussels could be agreed within weeks, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
A European airline is understood to be at an "advanced stage" of negotiations to launch a service from Belfast City or Belfast International. The business community has been lobbying for the service for many years.
The airline considering the route does not currently operate in Northern Ireland.
There is fierce competition between the two airports for new routes into Europe. Both are also pursuing options to begin services to Frankfurt and Munich. New routes into major European "hub" cities could attract support from Tourism Ireland, an important factor in making a new service financially viable for an airline.
Stephen Kelly, chief executive of the employers' federation, Manufacturing NI, said: "Frankfurt would be the number one priority for our members. There's a significant demand for a direct flight to a major German city. Many local manufacturers have business connections there and we would be very keen to see that happen."
A spokesman for Belfast International Airport added: "The German market is a currently a huge gap that needs to be filled as soon as possible. Dublin Airport operates 120 services to German cities every week. Here in Northern Ireland, we have none. As a region, we can't continue to have no connectivity with a key market."
Belfast City Airport presently has just one year-round international route, to Amsterdam. The operator KLM launched the service five months ago, with flights six times a week. An airline industry source said the new route was "hugely successful".
It's understood that KLM has sold at least 25,000 seats on the route since it began in May. Many passengers are using the route to access Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport as a major international hub, flying onwards to the east coast of the United States and to Asia, particularly China and Hong Kong.
Summer routes operated by Aer Lingus from Belfast City to Malaga, Palma and Faro, and by Vueling to Barcelona, are due to end shortly, but all have performed well and are expected to resume in spring 2016.
Belfast City Airport's latest results reveal a slight increase in passenger numbers in 2014, at 2.56m, compared to 2.54m the previous year. Turnover increased to £19,801,000, up marginally from £19,771,000. A rise in operational costs and interest repayments rates saw operating profit fall 7% to £2,386,000.
Recently, the airport successfully refinanced its borrowings, according to the accounts. The group, whose ultimate controlling company is Eiser Infrastructure Partners, said it had secured fresh borrowing facilities of £46m, along with injecting an additional £30m split equally between increased share capital and a loan. This effectively ends the prospect of the airport being sold.
Chief executive Brian Ambrose said: "2014 was a steady year for the business with Flybe commencing services to London City which partially off-set the loss of the airline's Gatwick route. Aer Lingus increased its capacity on the Gatwick and Heathrow services. We expect 2015 to be a record year in terms of passenger numbers and profitability. We will continue to invest in our infrastructure in 2015, aimed at improving still further the customer experience with significant capital investment and are confident of growing our direct European network."
Passenger numbers are also growing at Belfast International Airport. A spokesman said that figures for September showed a 12% increase year on year and further growth was expected.
"There will be 160,000 additional seats available with easyJet on domestic routes over the winter and spring period," he said. "We confidently expect to hit 4.4m passengers this year, bringing us close to the record levels of 2007 when we exceeded five million passengers."