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Connecting the dots

The issue of air connectivity is more important than ever for Europe. Airport operators and airlines gathered in Belfast, Northern Ireland to discuss opportunities. Keith Mwanalushi reports

The European Commission has specifically recognised the importance of air connectivity in its recent Aviation Strategy, pointing to aviation as being a strong driver of economic growth, jobs, trade and mobility. 


The critical importance of investing in air travel infrastructure in Europe is now widely understood – and central to this is connecting airports adequately. These issues were discussed at length in Belfast, the setting for the 2017 Routes Europe event which saw around 1,200 route development professionals from 114 airlines, 270 airports and 36 tourism authorities routing out future network opportunities.


Brian Ambrose, Chief Executive Officer of George Best Belfast City Airport (BHD), says that with record investment in Belfast and the highest ever tourism numbers reported, Routes Europe's arrival in the city presented a fantastic opportunity to showcase this growth and positively change the traditional perception of Northern Ireland.

Northern Irish charm


“To host Routes Europe in Belfast was a huge opportunity for the whole city,” Ambrose tells Low Cost & Regional Airline Business. “Considering that the majority of airline executives who attended the conference were in Belfast for the first time, I believe we collectively created a very positive impression.” Ambrose feels the exposure will help accelerate and convert a number of prospects. “It is our objective to double our European network over the next five years, and Routes Europe will contribute to achieving this goal, or even exceeding it,” he says.


BHD currently handles 2.67 million passengers per year with key operations from within the UK and points in mainland Europe. The airport is a modern facility, following investment over the last number of years in the terminal building. Ambrose says the airport’s unique location, five minutes from Belfast helped it earn the title of ‘most convenient airport in the UK and Ireland’ in a study conducted by The Daily Telegraph in April 2016. 


Alongside profitable routes, he says it’s important to form a true partnership with airlines that use the airport. “We believe our in-depth understanding of the local market really appeals to our airline partners. Everything we offer our airlines is completely bespoke and designed for the specific airline and opportunity – we really try and put ourselves in our airline’s shoes,” he adds. 


Ambrose is keen to build on the region's economic and tourism success story by strategically enhancing BHD's UK and European route network. He feels there is a real demand in the region for direct connections to key destinations across Europe and it’s imperative to continue to meet that demand.


BHD is undergoing a period of development, Ambrose points to the forthcoming new route to Reykjavík with Icelandair that will open up connections to North America, for instance. 


“We are focused on executing a number of opportunities following the Routes Europe conference. We also hope to have more significant investment in the infrastructure of our airport to improve our customer experience further,” he submits.


Locally, Ambrose is resolute about confronting any challenges facing the UK regional airline market, such as the possible impact of Brexit. “Through my years in the industry, I realise that challenges come and go and it is our ability to respond to these challenges that determines success.”


At the moment, he remains focused on delivering very intensive goals and objectives for the business. “Challenges will, undoubtedly, arise, and it is our job as leaders to navigate around them as they do.”


Hungarian spirit


Arguably, no airport in Europe has been in the spotlight lately as much as Budapest Airport (BUD) in Hungary. The airport witnessed its best-ever start to a year in 2017, resulting in the Hungarian gateway breaking the monthly 1 million passenger mark in April, a month earlier than it did last year. Following its 40th consecutive month of growth, Budapest recorded an impressive 17.5% year-on-year increase in passenger traffic in April, more than double the EU gross average of 7%.


Having already added an exceptional 23 new routes for 2017, Balazs Bogats, the Head of Airline Development stresses that this achievement was above a further 21 new routes added just last year.


“We can feel some kind of boom in the industry. Budapest is a great city and we are in a good position to sell the destination,” he continues. >>

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