Around 1,200 route development professionals from 114 airlines, 270 airports and 36 tourism authorities attended Routes Europe at the Belfast Waterfront.
A thriving tourism industry has developed in Northern Ireland thanks to its natural beauty and rich heritage. The number of visits to its attractions reached 17.5 million in 2015, driven by the popularity of sites such as the Giant’s Causeway and Titanic Belfast. The HBO TV series Game of Thrones which is partially filmed in Northern Ireland has also helped to fuel this growth.In addition, Northern Ireland’s status as a great business location has attracted investors from around the world such as Citi, Fujitsu, Seagate, Allstate, Allen & Overy and Baker & McKenzie.Northern Ireland’s success story is reflected in the growing demand for air travel. George Best Belfast City Airport and Belfast International Airport welcomed 7.8 million passengers between them last year, the highest combined figure on record.
Most of Europe’s major airlines have registered including the five largest by available seats: Ryanair, easyJet, Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways. Airlines from outside Europe include American Airlines, ANA, Hong Kong Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Ryanair’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, will be interviewed on stage about the airline’s ambition to become the ‘future Amazon of air travel’.
Brian Ambrose, chief executive of George Best Belfast City Airport, said: “With record investment in Belfast and the highest ever tourism numbers being reported, Routes Europe’s arrival in the city presents us with a fantastic opportunity to showcase this growth and positively change the traditional perception of Northern Ireland.
“We want to build on the region’s economic and tourism success story by strategically enhancing Belfast City Airport’s UK and European route network. There is a real demand in the region for direct connections to key destinations across Europe and it is our aim to continue to meet that demand.
“Located just a few minutes’ drive from the city centre, Belfast City Airport is enjoying an exciting period of development, with our forthcoming new route to Reykjavik with Icelandair opening up connections to North America.
A4E on strikes:
Air Traffic Control (ATC) strikes remain the single biggest issue for European aviation.
Speaking during the Routes Europe 2017 live content programme, Airlines for Europe (A4E) managing director Thomas Reynaert said in the last six years in Europe there had been 117 strikes causing 217 strike days for the sector.
This led to 278 days of disruption as airlines cope with the initial disruption and cost the EU €12 billion in cumulative negative financial impact.
Reynaert said that analysis showed airlines were not the worst hit sector either as only 6% of the sum is their own lost revenues. Instead tourism was worst hit with 59% of the figure being reduced tourism spending while 35% was thanks to a loss of productivity.
He added: “That’s a real scandal. That’s what the disruption can cost. That's just the financial cost, it is not the social cost with families being disrupted.
“It is not only a problem for aviation, it is a major problem for the European economy and it is affecting tourism businesses.”
Reynaert said the country with the most ATC strikes during the six-year period had been France with more than 25 days of industrial action.
He added thanks to the country’s geographical location, the effects of any strike in France can be disproportionate, adding: “If France goes on strike, even for a regional strike, it causes huge problems.”
Other problems affecting European aviation include airport charges, security costs as Europe sees an increase in terrorist attacks and taxes.
Reynaert argued that many airports are still able to act as monopolies and are less than transparent when it comes to the charges they levy from airlines.
He said: “The way charges are being worked out in many places is simply not transparent.
“With infrastructure, why do we need to pre-finance (it through increased airport charges). With (customer) parking lots has anybody done a study as to why we (airlines) would use them?
“But I’m not saying the majority of airports is getting it wrong, the majority is getting it right.”
However, Reynaert said the problem could get worse as a result of increased terrorist attacks, many of which are targeting airports. But he argued security was a duty of the state and said governments should do more to crack down on terrorism as well as pay more to help protect airports.
As far as aviation taxes are concerned, he added European passengers had been “fleeced” of €5.6 billion in 2016. He added the UK was worst hit at €3.6 billion followed by Germany at €1.1 billion.
He urged governments to cut the taxes in order to stimulate the market better, ultimately raising their own revenues as a result.
"When I did my PhD there were 1,000 routes within Europe. Today Ryanair has nearly 2,000 routes within Europe - the EU has been absolutely fantastic for aviation. The benefit has been to customers."
"In the UK we can't go very far without getting wet, so the UK is very good at air travel. For those UK airlines which have a lot of domestic travel, they might be affected if Scotland stays within the EU."
"Although the EU is saying there will be no central deal, aviation might end up being excluded from that."
"We want to become a great trading nation once again, but the UK needs aviation to trade."
"We have issues with airline ownership; look at IAG. Could we see British Airways no longer being a British airline?"
Prof Keith Mason, Centre for Air Transport Management, Cranfield University
"It's about a willingness to make this work. We're going to need to ride the wave, but ultimately I'm optimistic that we'll end up with Open Skies."
"The biggest risk is under-selling ourselves with politicians. We can't be bringing problems to them; we need to be talking about our strengths and solutions."
Gordon Dewar, CEO, Edinburgh Airport
"50 pecent of UK traffic goes into Europe, but one-in-ten of European traffic goes into the UK. This is a European issue. The ideal outcome for the UK industry would be no change. Transport is the enabler of trade, and aviation is a key part of that. Without aviation, the whole of European trade will be affected."
"The UK government has said aviation is a priority. But do other EU member states feel the same way? I would hope my counterparts across Europe are having the same lobbying discussions with their governments that we are."
"Some of the airports which rely more on low-cost travel could be affected. It could be helped if easyJet spin-off a European operation as discussed. We have a lot of exposure to European markets but this hasn't put off European airlines from investing; airlines must be confident that this will be resolved one way or another."
On oil prices and the French elections - currency expert discusses aviation risk:
Upcoming political machinations could have a major impact on the global aviation industry, a foreign currency expert has told Routes Europe.
Trevor Charsley, senior advisory, Associated Foreign Exchange (AFEX), said that businesses in the sector need to keep close watch on the French election and stronger dollar.
"“Donald Trump has announced new US tax cuts, but they've missed out border tax. If a border tax is included that could increase the strength of the dollar by 25 percent," he said.
Even more relevant is the US effect on global oil prices, which Charsley said may remain low in the near term, contrary to many experts' opinion.
"The more the oil price goes up, the more the US is going to pump, so we may actually see lower oil prices in the medium term," he said.
The French election also threatens further volatility and uncertainty, he said on the eve of the first round which saw Macron and Le Pen progress to the final vote..
"If Macron doesn't get through to the second round in the French election, and Le Pen and Mélenchon go through to the second round... wow - the euro is going to be struggling," he said. "And if Mélenchon gets into power... expect to be paying 90 percent tax."
"Be aware of exchange rate risks when planning routes because 'you only discover who is swimming naked when the tide goes out'."
"You've got the routes, you understand everything - but don't forget to put in a nice margin for oil price changes and currency fluctuations."