IT always happens during the few days before Santa and his reindeer fly in – and it brings joy to all the family.
It’s when the great ‘iron birds’ of the sky arrive from above the clouds, bringing home loved ones for Christmas from every corner of the UK, from Europe and all over the world. Perhaps the greatest present of all.
Northern Ireland’s three airports – Belfast International, George Best Belfast City and City of Derry – were yesterday awash with tears of joy, alive to the sound of happy greetings as loved ones, many of whom hadn’t seen each other for at least a year, embraced and kissed in the arrivals halls.
The International Airport staff estimated that around 45,000 people would pass through its lounges during this busy Yuletide weekend. Around 9,000 arrived at Belfast City yesterday, and the north-west airport staff predict that about 100,000 travellers will make the homeward journey to spend a joyous Christmas with family and friends.
But other travellers are flying the other way – some to enjoy the sun of Tenerife, or ski in resorts in the Alps and the Rockies – while grandparents are off above the clouds to meet and greet sons and daughters and grandchildren who emigrated from Ulster.
Uel Hoey, business development director of Belfast International, said: “The emotional reunions are wonderful, but there is also ‘hidden’ travel in the airport – the freight end that swells to massive dimensions around Christmas.
“The year-on-year increase of on-line shopping has really added to that aspect, with most major organisations offering their goods on their websites. It’s doubling by the year. FedEx is the biggest airline in the world – and the most profitable – and there’s no backchat from the passengers!
“We have four worldwide freight companies operating from Belfast International, and it’s often the forgotten end of air travel, but a true international service.”
People, though, are the most precious commodity, with homesick students coming home for Christmas, and people working in foreign lands enjoying the wonderful break with mum and dad and extended family. There’s no place like home, especially mother’s wonderful cooking, having the grandchildren for days on end, heralding the traditional family time of the year, and maybe going to the church of your childhood after being away for so long.
At Belfast City, with its links with Heathrow, there was also an international flavour, with a Greenisland family reunited after a Middle Eastern parting through work – Laura, Stephanie, mum Diane and dad Reynold Anthony shed the traditional tears of joy after meeting again.
And Anouska Cromie, Leah Morgan and Bernie McKeown from Bessbrook felt just the same after the 10,000-mile flight from Australia – via Heathrow –united them again, one of a number of families returning from Down Under.
Up at Belfast International, Aiofe Tinney from Ramelton in Co Donegal, studying mental health nursing at Dundee University, was delighted to run into the arms of dad Patrick, mum Evelyn and nephew Thomas O’Brien. “It’s just wonderful to be back for Christmas,” she said.
Teresa Clarke from Dundrum, a teacher of home economics at Southfield Technology College in Cumbria, was gleefully met by family and friends Ann Smyth and Veronica Bailie. And yesterday morning, when a flight landed from America, emotions overflowed.
But it wasn’t all one-way traffic. Willie Muldoon and wife Heather from Omagh were all geared up to fly out to the north-east of England where their daughter Sharon Dawson is sales executive with Sunderland Football Club. And she has booked a free ticket for dad for their Boxing Day fixture with Premiership champions Manchester City.
“I’m looking forward to seeing grandchildren Sophie and Isaac, and my greatest hope is that Sunderland win and get out of the bottom three in the league,” said Willie.
Mr Hoey was also keen to promote the variety of flights from the International Airport with families keen to escape the hassle at home and let hotels all over the UK and Continent do the cooking – London, Glasgow, Manchester, Paris and the warmer climes of Spain among them.
And publicity officer Alyson English wasn’t behind the door in underlining that George Best City now has the only link to Heathrow from Northern Ireland – and that’s the gateway to the world.
“We have lots of extra staff on board over the next couple of days to make sure everyone’s journey home is as smooth as possible,” she said
Damien Tierney from City of Derry Airport said: “Our predicted figures at 10,000 this Christmas are encouraging, in the current economic climate and we are achieving the same figures as 2011. We’re really pleased about that.”