Having three airports in NI has boosted Dublin airport

There is a lot of focus on the likely shape of cross-border relations and interactions post Brexit.

Saturday, 28th July 2018, 6:36 pm
Updated Saturday, 28th July 2018, 7:59 pm
Dublin airport has developed in a way that it gets many Northern Irish passengers. Roma Chang, above, from Donaghmore Co Tyrone in 2013 was the 20 millionth passenger to walk through the doors of Terminal 2, three years after it opened. Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

One of the biggest changes in recent years, indeed in the history of this island, is the growth of Dublin airport, and the way that it is now so heavily used by people from Northern Ireland.

This is due to a number of factors, one of the most notable of which is the completion of the Belfast to Dublin motorway (well, not quite — the northern section of that route is still a dual carriageway with deadly gaps in the middle, in which tractors can cross in front of fast-moving intercity traffic).

It is also due to the fact that the Republic got a big part of its airport provision right: instead of several airports within proximity of the capital city, it has only one.

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The airport is on the northern side, which means that it is attractive to the 1.8 million people who live in Northern Ireland, and it is connected by the three-lane (and now seamless) motorway to the city’s south and west, as well as by a tunnel to the city’s port and centre.

The airport now has a critical mass of services flying in and out of it, which is feeding upon itself and making it ever more attractive to use, with a growing number of international destinations. Not only that, increasing numbers of passengers are flying into it from mainland Europe and connecting on to flights to America.

This is what you might expect in an airport that is located a significant part of the way to America from Europe.

Consequently, more and more people are using the airport, with numbers now far above 20 million and steadily rising.

Although I first used Dublin Airport in the 1970s, to go to America, it is something that only in recent years I have begun to use heavily.

I would not hesitate in doing so, despite being a unionist who thinks that the problems of Brexit have been overstated and that the UK has got into ludicrous pledges on the Irish land border (as detailed in our story today).

In the 1990s, it made much more sense to make long haul flights from NI via London, but now it is much easier and faster to make them via Dublin (thanks to the motorway, but also due to the proliferation of international routes out of Dublin).

In Northern Ireland, however, we have not got our airport provision right, and I see little indication that we will any time soon.

We operate almost instinctively on an all-things-to-all-men basis, and this is why we were unable to agree on a single mega stadium for the Province.

We have three airports, which is in some respects handy (if you live in the Northwest, for example, and can find a useful flight out of City of Derry, or if, like me, you live within easy access of Belfast City Airport).

But it means that we have no single airport that has a critical mass remotely like Dublin, and so we are falling further and further behind.

If we had one airport at Belfast International we might begin to have that critical mass.

It would be controversial for sure and would (I imagine) involve things such as buying out Belfast City and closing City of Derry.

These are big decisions but politicians occasionally have to make them. We are not alone in being reticent: the UK government squandered the chance to close Heathrow, turn it into badly needed London housing, and build the biggest airport in the world in the Thames Valley.

Our reform would not need to be as big as that but it would still need political courage and confidence.

A single airport would have to be accompanied by a motorway or dual carriageway from Aldergrove not only to Londonderry (as is being built) but ideally to Letterkenny.

It would also need a dual carriageway from the M2 at Templepatrick, swinging past the airport and on to the M1 at Moira. There would also need to be a spur dual carriageway to the A1, to enhance the appeal of flying from Belfast to southern travellers.

Such an airport might then have the numbers to justify a rail link (only might — I will write about that another time).

It still would not be as big an airport as Dublin but I think it would have 10+ million passenger movements a year and so more routes and appeal, and many people such as me who use Dublin would have less reason to do so.

This is not something that will happen any time soon but at the very least we should be examining it as a possibility closely.

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