Comment: A bung to keep flights at City of Derry, and maintain our daft airport policy

This column is being written from Spain.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 24th September 2016, 12:36 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 2:43 pm
City of Derry Airport, which has failed to attract significant passenger numbers but is getting yet more public funds
City of Derry Airport, which has failed to attract significant passenger numbers but is getting yet more public funds

One of the breakthroughs of the internet and low cost airline age is that you can fly into one destination and then travel by land to another and fly back home from that.

This was not possible 20 years ago, when airlines did not cater for cheap one-way flights. They would offer cheap returns, say £99 return Gatwick to Malaga, but a single ticket on the same route would cost more than a bargain return and might for example be priced at £250.

The only way to get round it was to buy a cheap return and then use it as a single ticket and abandon the return leg, but even that was complicated when you came to try to get back home from a different location.

Back then British airlines typically would not let you start a cheap return from a mainland European location, and so you could not do the same thing in reverse (buy a cheap return ticket from the European location to get home, and then abandon the unused final leg).

Now you can fly one-way on one airline from, say, Belfast to Faro in Portugal and travel by land to Lisbon and fly back from there on another airline to Dublin, and then take the fast coaches home on the new motorway.

I often travel in this way and have not yet booked my return flight, because I do not know exactly when I will return or exactly from where.

This is the extraordinary thing about the internet: there are about a dozen options that I am keeping an eye on, with a number of airlines returning to either Belfast International or Dublin.

One possibility I am considering is a flight that arrives in Belfast after midnight, but if so it is too late for the last bus back from Aldergrove to the city centre, which departs at 12.15am.

My recollection is that until recently there was a 24-hour bus service from Belfast International. I recall nervously being on a flight with hand baggage only that landed at Aldergrove about 10 minutes before one of the hourly night buses into the city and running to catch it.

But now that night service has, it seems, been axed – presumably to save money.

No wonder. Those night buses had few people on them.

I noticed also some months ago that the bus service from Belfast City Airport to the city centre had also been cut, again to save money (from a bus every 20 minutes to one every 30).

So while aspects of international travel from Northern Ireland have been relentlessly improving (internet, budget airlines, motorway to Dublin Airport, an ever-growing list of destinations from that hub airport), parts of our airport infrastructure have got worse.

The DUP-Sinn Fein coalition have just agreed £7 million for City of Derry Airport, which has utterly failed to attract significant numbers of users (despite supposedly being a critical gateway to the Northwest).

It has been burning public cash – £14 million in subsidised losses since 2010. Most of that has been borne by ratepayers in the NW, but now Stormont funds will be used to help (ie English taxpayers).

This is what happens when you have three airports in a place the size of Northern Ireland. Not one of the three is even close to having the critical mass of users needed to sustain proper public transport links to it.

We still have people demanding a rail link to Belfast International. But that airport has only 4.3 million annual passenger movements, compared to 25 million+ for Dublin (my take on Dublin click here). City of Derry has around 300,000 movements.

If all the three Northern Ireland airports had been concentrated in a single hub then it would have their combined total of 7.3 million passenger movements.

It could then justify proper road links (as a start) and realistically aim to reclaim two million of the Dublin annual passenger movements from among the many such movements made by people travelling to and from Northern Ireland.

Aldergrove would have been an obvious location for a hub because it is close to being in the middle of NI. The £7 million that is being handed to City of Derry Airport could help to fund the completion of the A6.

If there was a hub, it would easily justify building an expressway road from the M1 to the M2 bypassing Templepatrick and skirting that roundabout near the airport where the old police security point used to be.

Allied to a finished A6, it would be possible to drive almost to the door of Aldergrove on fast roads all the way from Londonderry and it would speed up access from Fermanagh too.

At an average 60mph it would only be a 17-minute drive to the M3 bridge, near Belfast City Airport.

A hub Aldergrove might have close to 10 million annual passenger movements – the sort of number that makes a rail link feasible.

Some years ago a row flared up over the fact that the bus service from Aldergrove to Belfast city centre only ran every 30 minutes. In a capitulation to that controversy, the authorities stupidly put on a bus every 10 minutes (as if that might increase users). The service quietly dropped back to one every 15 minutes, then one every 20.

Some Stormont MLAs should have explained to the public that the bus service (and lack of a train one) was the result of a three-airport policy that dilutes passenger numbers at each site.

Martin McGuinness, who can at times imply that it would be not only mean-spirited but perhaps discriminatory to withhold funding from a NW public scheme, switched in tone to Father Christmas mode when he believed that new funds for City of Derry was likely to be agreed, brimming with generosity.

Mr McGuinness might be the most egregious example of this money-grows-on-English-trees mentality, but all the parties act as if it is generous endlessly to announce funding for X or funding for Y (ironically Alliance, whose sole MP would not sit with the fiscally prudent coalition, at times seems more financially careful than the UUP, which was once in a pact with the Tories).

But that cross-party approach isn’t generous. Spending foolishly in one area means cutbacks in another, perhaps where there is no-one prominent to defend the threatened service.

Stormont parties agreed to fund perks such as free prescriptions and free travel at 60 (idiotic at a time of rising life expectancy).

All of these things reduce the money available for multiple other good causes, ranging from psychiatric services to infrastructure.

Our daft, splintered, all-things-to-all-men airport policy is a case in point.

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