Interview: Belfast City CEO Eyes Traffic Growth, International Routes

CEO Matthew Hall said a more diverse airline mix is helping to drive the recovery at the Northern Ireland airport.

Credit: Belfast City
Matthew Hall, Belfast City Airport CEO.

Passenger numbers at Belfast City (BHD) are expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels next year as the Northern Irish airport benefits from the addition of new carriers and routes, according to CEO Matthew Hall.

Speaking to Routes, Hall said that traffic has recovered to about 80% of 2019 figures. Airlines are showing no signs of scaling back frequencies during the winter 2022/23 season despite the challenging economy and the cost-of-living crisis in the UK, he added.

“We’re really encouraged with the capacity in place and we’re having some good conversations with carriers about adding further capacity and frequencies on their networks within Great Britain, as well as to potential international destinations,” said Hall, who joined the airport in August 2021.

Belfast City has diversified its airline mix in recent years after the administration of dominant carrier Flybe, followed by the collapse of Aer Lingus Regional operator Stobart Air. Flybe, which accounted for about 68% of all departure seats in 2019, ended operations in March 2020, while Stobart Air ceased trading in June 2021.

Since then, easyJet returned to Belfast City in July 2021 after an absence of 10 years, and new Aer Lingus Regional operator Emerald Airlines opened a base there in March 2022. The reborn Flybe also launched a base at BHD the following month, while Loganair has expanded operations.

Although Eastern Airways ended flights to the Northern Ireland airport in October 2022—and has since switched its Southampton (SOU) route to Belfast International (BFS)—and Ryanair has not returned after a brief spell during summer 2021, Hall said he is pleased by the airline makeup and the available routes.

“We’re a very different airport now compared with before the pandemic,” he said. “We have a mixed portfolio of eight carriers—that’s great for business resilience but also from a consumer choice perspective.

“We’ve concentrated on rebuilding our network to and from Great Britain and it now accounts for 20 of our 25 destinations. There’s great network coverage there, but also flight frequencies.”

EasyJet launched a new route to Glasgow (GLA) in late October, joining its existing services to Bristol (BRS), Liverpool (LPL) and London Gatwick (LGW). New routes from BHD planned for 2023 include Emerald Airlines’ flights to Newquay (NQY) and Jersey (JER), which start in April and May respectively.

Hall said that Belfast City was in 2023 looking forward to seeing the full effects of the new services secured in recent years after traffic was disrupted in early 2022 because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

He added that the airport is also hoping to further grow its network next year—and is targeting international routes. Belfast City currently has two international services, with Flybe and KLM each offering flights to Amsterdam (AMS).

“There are a number of European capital destinations that make sense when you look at the potential growth in the market,” Hall explained.

“There were 10 or 11 million passengers that came to and from Northern Ireland in 2019. By 2030, that is going to be 16 to 17 million passengers. Great Britain will still represent the biggest chunk of that, but EU point-to-point traffic is forecast to be a growth market.”

Hall also welcomed the planned cut in Air Passenger Duty (APD), which is being reduced by 50% to £6.50 ($7.80) for domestic flights within the UK from April 2023, saying it was a “step in the right direction.” However, he called on the UK government to eliminate the tax completely.