Last updated: 04:30 PM ET, Wed April 27 2016

Can Belfast Become One of the UK's Most Important Hubs?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | April 27, 2016

Can Belfast Become One of the UK's Most Important Hubs?

PHOTO: Titanic Belfast Museum. (photo courtesy of Visit Britain)

The 2016 Routes Europe event recently wrapped up in Krakow, Poland. This annual regional aviation forum brings together airlines, airports and other aviation industry stakeholders for the purpose of building new relationships and expanding air services in the region. 

Plans are already underway for next year’s event. Routes Europe 2017 will be hosted in Belfast, Northern Ireland. 

Belfast can showcase its recent successes during Routes 2017

This city will certainly benefit from showcasing itself as a destination and as a growing air travel hub. Routes '17 will be held next April at purpose-built conference facilities on Belfast’s newly reinvigorated waterfront.

Belfast is already becoming a more prominent destination for airlines. Belfast International saw 4.4 million passengers in 2015 (a nine percent increase from 2014). George Best Belfast City Airport had an additional 2.7 million fliers.

READ MORE: Titanic Belfast Becomes Northern Ireland’s Top Draw

Ryanair could jumpstart growth at Belfast's two airports

These numbers are set to grow exponentially over the next 12 to 14 months. Ryanair will be launching ten new routes from Belfast International starting in September with flights to Berlin-Schonefeld and Malaga, Spain. The low cost carrier currently only has one route at the airport (to London Gatwick). 

Thomas Cook, meanwhile, will be adding to its list of seasonal offerings from Belfast International in 2017, while Aer Lingus, which flies to Heathrow from Belfast City, will soon be launching additional flights for the upcoming summer travel season. 

The addition of Ryanair is especially important for Belfast. Ideally, it will spur the other airlines, such as IAG-owned Aer Lingus and British Airways, to start offering more flights from the city. 

A well-rounded effort to spur growth

Belfast has done its best to make itself a more attractive destination for both leisure and business travelers. The city has spent money developing the “Titanic Quarter,” which it hopes will be a major boost for tourism. (The quarter’s doomed namesake was built in Belfast). A newly reinvigorated waterfront area also has conference facilities where Routes Europe and other major events will be hosted in the coming years. 

Two organizations, Tourism Belfast and Invest Northern Ireland, will be responsible for hosting Routes 2017. But both are already actively promoting their city and nation to tourists and to investors. Tourism has grown significantly over the past decade, with 15 million visitors arriving in 2014 to see things like the Titanic Quarter, the Ulster Museum, Giant’s Causeway and Londonderry’s city walls. 

The HBO series "Game of Thrones" has also been good for Northern Ireland as well. Fans go to see the shooting locations and studios where some of the show’s most memorable scenes were filmed. 

READ MORE: Officials Want 'Game of Thrones' Wall For Tourism, Wildlings Not Welcome

A number of companies have decided to base themselves in Belfast. This trend inspired the Financial Times magazine fDi to call the city the best small-to-medium metropolis in Europe for business.

Funding will help build on current success

Belfast will be able to build on its recent air travel successes thanks to a £4 million grant from the Air Route Development Fund. Trade minister Jonathan Bell says that that these funds, along with the momentum from the growth that is already happening at Belfast Int’l and George Best, could help Belfast develop a beneficial mix of short and long haul routes: “I believe Northern Ireland would benefit economically from greater connectivity to a range of unserved short haul destinations within Europe, as well as greater long haul connectivity to Canada and the Middle East.”

Also on Belfast’s side is the trend of secondary airports in the UK trying to develop their own routes instead of merely offering connecting flights to London’s larger airports. Hubs in Manchester and Birmingham are examples of this trend. If Belfast is able to continue its growth, it could become the model for these other non-London hubs.

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