Ben Lowry: The success of Dublin Airport contrasts with NI's split airport provision

This summer Dublin Airport was the fastest growing airport in Europe.

Wednesday, 14th September 2016, 12:30 pm
Updated Tuesday, 4th October 2016, 1:48 pm
Travellers at Dublin Airport, which had 25 million passengers in 2015 and is still growing

The facility and the superb motorway links around it are a clear example of good infrastructure planning, that then reaps dividends for both the economy and for the convenience of the millions of people who use it.

As someone who wants to see as much of this Earth as possible before I die, I am an increasingly regular user of Dublin Airport.

I am not alone in Northern Ireland – growing numbers of us make the now easy journey from the greater Belfast area down to the Republic’s capital, from where we can fly to an ever growing list of destinations without having to route via London.

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The bus services from Belfast are now outstanding, thanks primarily to Aircoach [see sidebar below].

The airport is located on the northern side of Dublin, and so Ulster travellers could always get to it without having to go into the congested city. But now a motorway leads almost to the door. At speed limits it is 90 minutes from the heart of Belfast.

And since the completion of the M50, users of the airport who are coming to or from places far to the south or west of Dublin can also get there easily (particularly so after the upgrade of that ring road to a free-flowing motorway of three lanes each way).

The success of Dublin contrasts with airport provision in Northern Ireland, where we have lost the opportunity to create a big hub. Instead we ended up with three airports to service a small population.

How typical of this Province – needlessly dividing things up and an ‘equality-impact-assessment’ mindset that seeks to please everyone but fails to think big. Look how we blew the chance for a single multi-sport stadium.

Belfast International was almost perfectly located to be a hub servicing not merely Northern Ireland, but the nine counties of Ulster.

It needed two things: a motorway to the northwest and also a dual carriageway between the M1 and M2.

Ideally a motorway to the NW would arc round Londonderry and link seamlessly on to a dual carriageway to Letterkenny so that somebody could reliably drive from the latter to Aldergrove in one hour and 20 minutes at an average 65 mph.

You think there is no money for such road schemes? Then look closely at Northern Ireland’s vast, barely reformed annual welfare spend and think again.

If you are unconvinced, then consider road tolls, which helped fund motorways in the Republic. Motorists happily pay to use a good road (rather than stuck in frustration behind a tractor).

An Aldergrove hub would also possibly have had enough passenger numbers to justify a rail link using the old line that runs within 500 metres of the terminal.

But there is no chance of such a link being economically feasible given the relatively modest numbers of people who use Belfast International now. It had 4.3 million passengers last year (compared to 25 million for Dublin), and even those who live near a train station (as I do, in south Belfast) would have to travel to a main station to get a train, a journey that would take almost as long as driving straight to the airport (unless the train stopped at every halt, in which case it would be slow and lack general appeal).

But if Northern Ireland had one hub airport then the 7.3 million passengers who in 2015 used Derry, Belfast City and Belfast International combined would have been concentrated in one facility.

We could aim for 10 million, because a hub would develop a critical mass of users and have more destinations. It would begin to attract some travellers from the south – if the road was fixed.

It needs to be fixed. The current motorway takes travellers from greater Belfast to the door of Dublin Airport but the reverse is not true. If you go from greater Dublin to Aldergrove you drive at speed to Sprucefield but then have to crawl on back roads to the airport. The A26 south of Nutts Corner is a long line of slow moving lorries.

Imagine what a combination of an airline owning tycoon and an imaginative Stormont might have achieved – a transatlantic hub at Aldergrove.

I have flown to the west coast of America via Amsterdam, which is in the wrong direction, because it is a hub with competitive fares. Think of the easyjet and Jet2 routes to Europe, then imagine that one of those airlines had one or two routes on to north America, with low prices. Transatlantic passengers in Europe might then route via Belfast, in addition to those passengers who are already using the service, plus some more who would be coming up from Dublin on a direct expressway road.

Aldergrove is, after all, much closer to America than Amsterdam is. It is no coincidence that Alcock and Brown in 1919 just about made it from Newfoundland to Ireland.

That airport provision in Northern Ireland has not developed in this way suits me personally. Belfast City is by far the most convenient location for me. I once lived right under the flight path in east Belfast and the noise didn’t even disturb me, so even then I was not opposed to it.

But if I was to vote on what is best for Ulster (and again I am referring to the nine counties) I would go for a single hub at Aldergrove.

It will not happen now, but all is not lost.

Even without a hub the A6 to the Northwest needs to be upgraded (as slowly it is being).

And Belfast International is still important enough to justify an expressway road past it, linking the M1 and M2.

• Aircoach and the motorway have transformed access to Dublin.

A 24-hour timetabled service with wifi goes straight to the airport.

In 2004 I wrote about the then useless service: the first Translink bus left Belfast at 8am and was supposed to arrive at Dublin Airport at 10.45am but typically arrived after 11am because the then single carriageway road was so congested.

This was of no use to a flight leaving Dublin before 1pm.

Now you can do things such as land in Dublin at 11pm, as I did on a Sunday coming back from the sun months ago, and catch a midnight Aircoach bus to Belfast (it arrived 1.40am).

I was at my desk refreshed by 9.30am, having snoozed on plane and bus and got six hours of sleep at home too.

Another thing: you buy Aircoach tickets online and go straight to the bus. Online Translink tickets have to be collected at the ticket office.

I once arrived at Glengall St 10 minutes before my bus to find a snaking queue. I missed the coach to Dublin.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor