Passengers down at Belfast City Airport for a third year
Passenger numbers at George Best Belfast City Airport have fallen for the third year running, while rival Belfast International Airport added 2.2 million in the same period.
The latest annual financial report filed by Belfast City Airport Ltd confirmed that air passenger flow fell by just under 50,000 (2%) through its terminal to 2.51 million during 2018.
Terminal traffic has fallen steadily at the airport since hitting 2.69m in 2015, according to the Civil Aviation Authority. After setting a record 2.74m passengers during 2010 on the back of Ryanair's services, the loss of the budget airline the same year resulted in a drop in passengers until Aer Lingus moved in with five new routes in 2012.
But a mixture of cutbacks and the cancellation of services has left numbers on the decline once again since 2015.
According to the airport, Aer Lingus' decision to axe its Gatwick route in early 2016 has cost it 250,000 passengers. Aer Lingus now operates just three routes from the City Airport.
The airport was acquired by private equity fund 3i in 2017.
Spanish carrier Vueling, Brussels Airlines and Air Iceland Connect have also attempted short-lived routes since 2015.
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City of Derry Airport has experienced a similar decline in its numbers, which have been slashed since hitting a high of 439,000 in 2008. Last year it had slumped to 185,843 - its lowest performance since 2000.
By comparison, Belfast International Airport has added more than 2m passengers (55%) since 2015, reaching 6.27m in 2018. Last year alone Aldergrove saw an extra 432,000 passengers pass through.
Dublin Airport has also experienced massive growth since 2013, adding 11m extra passengers to hit 31m last year.
Aviation expert Martin Craigs said whereas Belfast International's traffic is dominated by leisure travel, Belfast City Airport remains key for business travellers.
"The fact that the total gross numbers have gone up at Aldergrove is to do with pricing, and the increase in easyJet and other low cost carriers," he said.
"They won't heavily discount at the George Best Airport because they want to try and keep selling a business product.
"They're selling convenience based on their location and they want to keep all the premium services.
"The problem is that Northern Ireland is a finite market, and the growth is in the leisure side."
The problem for Belfast City Airport was compounded in its latest financial results, which revealed a pre-tax loss of £166,000 for the 12 months to December 31, 2018, albeit a decrease on the 2017 loss of £465,000.
With 508 weekly flights planned over 12 routes this winter, Flybe remains the anchor airline.
But its struggles were compounded in February by the sale of the company to the Virgin Atlantic-led Connect Airways consortium for £2.8m.
Flybe's passenger numbers are already expected to be down in 2019 with the cancellation of its route to Liverpool.
A spokesman for Belfast City Airport said: "As we continue to work closely with our partner airlines on delivering a comprehensive route network that is consistent and sustainable, the marginal variations in passenger numbers over the last two years of business were not unexpected.
"Our recent £15m investment in our infrastructure and facilities ensures our passengers are placed at the forefront of our operations."
Belfast International's business development director Uel Hoey said it could easily accommodate 8m passengers.
He claimed air passenger duty is hampering the airport's ability to compete with Dublin.
"Year-on-year, domestic passenger traffic at Belfast International has grown by 11%," he added.
"Of course, much more could be achieved without the burden of air passenger duty, and we will continue with our campaign to get rid of this hugely unfair tax that places Northern Ireland airports at an enormous disadvantage to the Republic of Ireland, where no similar tax applies.
"We can easily accommodate up to 8m passengers and we would reach that milestone a lot sooner if we didn't have air passenger duty."
Meanwhile, City of Derry Airport confirmed its numbers dropped 3.9% in 2018.
It said: "The recent decline in passenger numbers is a result of reduced capacity following the withdrawal of Ryanair's London-Stansted route.
"Operations of a double daily public service obligation route to London Stansted commenced in May 2017, offering more frequency to London Stansted but less capacity than the previous operator.
"Scottish Airline Loganair now operate the double daily service to London as well as operating new services to Glasgow International and Manchester.
"Ryanair continue to offer five services per week to Edinburgh and three services per week to Liverpool."