We will not get airport provision right in Northern Ireland until we have bold politicians willing to take hard decisions

Norwegian Air Boeing 737 MAX aircraft which operate low-cost transatlantic flights from Northern Ireland. "The tragedy about Northern Ireland's botched airport provision is that Aldergrove is ideally placed as a potential transatlantic hub for an innovative service such as Norwegian"
Norwegian Air Boeing 737 MAX aircraft which operate low-cost transatlantic flights from Northern Ireland. "The tragedy about Northern Ireland's botched airport provision is that Aldergrove is ideally placed as a potential transatlantic hub for an innovative service such as Norwegian"

Two weeks ago I used one innovative transport company to get down to Dublin.

Then this week a different innovative transport company quit Northern Ireland.

That one of these two companies, Aircoach, seems to be thriving in its NI bus service, and that the other, Norwegian Air, is quitting the Province are ultimately linked.

They are linked by the fact that the Republic has latterly developed its infrastructure better than us.

Earlier in the month I took part in a UCD debate on Irish unity and they offered to pay my travel expenses. Given that it was a student group I wanted to keep their costs low and went for the cheapest return, Aircoach, £16 Belfast-Dublin.

It isn’t as easy to work on a laptop on a coach as it is on a train but otherwise Aircoach is a good service: fast, using the motorway, with comfortable seats and good wifi signal.

The service was launched in 2004 and has radically improved access between Glengall Street in Belfast and Dublin Airport.

It got under way just as the motorway from Dublin to the border was edging towards completion, slashing driving times between Ireland’s two biggest cities (Aircoach continues from the airport into O’Connell Street in the heart of Dublin, so is a cheap and swift way to go city centre to city centre).

Prior to Aircoach the first Translink Goldline bus to Dublin left Belfast at the late time of 8am and was not scheduled to reach Dublin Airport until 10.35am. I know this because I wrote a story about it in 2005.

Back then Drogheda had only just been bypassed with the new motorway and Dundalk was still a congestion point on the Belfast to Dublin route. This meant the first Goldline bus often did not in fact reach Dublin Airport until 11am.

Public transport to Dublin Airport was only of any use if you had a flight leaving at lunchtime or later. Anyone on an earlier flight out of Dublin had to drive down and park or to stay in a hotel.

Aircoach initially had a first coach leaving Belfast at 6.30am but ultimately it provided the 24 hour service that it does now.

Translink followed suit and it also now has overnight coaches.

From the very beginning on Aircoach you could buy your seat online and go straight to the driver without collecting a ticket.

More than a decade after that, I bought a Translink Goldline coach ticket to Dublin online, arrived with a print-out of it at Glengall Street bus station and still had to stand in a long queue to pick up the physical ticket, missing the coach. I have not used the Translink Goldline since.

Meanwhile, Dublin Airport has been growing relentlessly and now has 30 million passenger numbers a year. It is the busiest airport in Britain and Ireland after Heathrow and Gatwick, now ahead even of Manchester.

The Irish planners did some simple things right. Dublin Airport is on the north side of the city, so it is close to Northern Ireland. It has a motorway almost at the door, with onward motorways towards Belfast, towards Dublin Port via the tunnel and towards the south and west of Dublin via the three-lane M50 orbital road.

It is also the only major airport in the greater Dublin area.

For a long while its only terminal was at bursting point but now there is a large, modern second terminal.

In Northern Ireland, in contrast, our airport policy is ‘all things to all men’. We have an airport at Belfast City, City of Derry and Aldergrove.

When City of Derry came close to closure, what did Stormont do? It rushed in with a multi million pound rescue package of course!

Has any major Northern Ireland politician ever questioned our airport strategy? When the United Airline Belfast-Newark service was on the verge of collapse Stormont again rushed to use public cash to keep it going (it failed).

Norwegian, like Aircoach, is innovative. They both combine sensible cost cutting with the digital age to minimise staff and booking overheads, and pass on the savings to the customer in low fares.

Norwegian is comfortable yet cuts out on board frills. If you travel hand luggage only and bring your own meal you can cross the Atlantic on very low fares of not much more than £100 per person each way.

Sadly, Norwegian is reported to be in debt trouble, but the principle of such an airline will endure even if individual companies do not.

The tragedy about Northern Ireland’s botched airport provision is that Aldergrove is ideally placed as a potential hub for an innovative service such as Norwegian.

I write all this without having had any contact with Aircoach or Norwegian press offices or any free tickets from them, but rather as a paying user. And I am not endorsing (or otherwise) the current management of Belfast International Airport but rather commenting on its excellent location. It is near to the middle of Ulster and closer to North America than almost any other long runway in Europe.

A rising number of tourists are visiting Northern Ireland, so we could become a base where flights to and from mainland Europe connect on to the occasional transatlantic service. Some such European users would stop off in Belfast for a night, to see the city.

If Belfast was ever to become such an air hub it would emerge slowly, and it would initially revolve around European routes that are feasible in their own right. But it would need an anchor transatlantic service.

That would be much more likely to happen if there was a single NI airport — a prospect that is all the more appropriate now that three dual carriageway sections on the Belfast-Londonderry A6 are under way (work on Dungiven-Drumahoe began this week). Road access to the Northwest will soon be good.

A single airport would also need a new Templepatrick-Moira road to improve access from all directions and ideally a further dual carriageway link to the A1 so Dublin travellers could reach Aldergrove easily.

The economist Esmond Birnie said this week that even if Northern Ireland had a single airport it would lack the critical mass of Dublin. This is true — Belfast International currently has about six million passenger movements, only a fifth of Dublin. But the three NI airports have nine million combined.

If a single NI airport with proper transport links (road and a reopened rail line near Aldergrove) reclaimed two million passenger movements from Dublin (ie some of the NI people who travel down to use it), then Dublin might dip to 28 million passengers while a combined NI airport hit 11 million.

This would be a better balance between Dublin and Belfast, from an airport that is five times bigger to one that is only 2.5 times bigger.

But it will not happen without politicians who are willing to take hard decisions.

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