IN recent years, business travel certainly took a hit, at some points grinding to a complete halt. As we adapted to new ways of working with online calls becoming commonplace, it seemed like the daily flights many businesspeople were used to would become a thing of the past. However, coming into this year it is evident that businesses see the value in building relationships in person and travel for work has returned in full force.
However, in Northern Ireland it seems we are becoming increasingly isolated as we have now lost not one but two national airline carriers on the busiest and most important economic corridor – Belfast City to London Heathrow.
First British Airways pulled out of its Belfast to London and some regional routes (possibly to consolidate its share under IAG arrangements with Aer Lingus) in 2020. Now we understand that Aer Lingus is also pulling their Heathrow flights due to Brexit regulations from the end of October.
As a regular traveller on both services, I know the cabin staff personally on these flights and can confirm that there is no economic basis for the suspension, as both flights are regularly overbooked (and overpriced).
At the same time, I have just spent last week on a business trip to the State of Ohio where local economic developers, politicians and investors are celebrating the announcement of a new Aer Lingus direct daily service from Dublin to Cleveland starting in May 2023. There is excitement about the potential for trade, tourism and investment corridor that this new route serviced by a A320 with capacity for 200 passengers will herald. The Economic Development Agency for the State is so confident of its success that they are underwriting the airline for any empty seats which do not sell.
Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland investment and trade in the US Mid-West is significant in construction, agri-food, financial services and tech, and we have important historical and cultural links with this part of America. US investment from this region on this island is also significant, with the likes of CME, Cleveland Clinic, and Abbot setting up here to name a few.
There are currently around 20 direct flights per day from Dublin to various US Cities, from New York to Seattle and all points in between operated by Delta, United American, and Aer Lingus, with an estimated capacity of 4000 passengers.
As a regular traveller on these routes, I hear a lot of my fellow Northern travellers from major US investors and local firms such as Citi, Allstate, Randox, Liberty, Almac and First Derivatives with most travelling on premium fares in business class, as well as a fair share of tourists visiting friends and relatives or embarking on Disneyland adventures.
Therefore, surely there is a business case to justify at least one daily connection to the US from Belfast. Had we a functioning Executive, they could work with our development agency to make the case and lobby the airlines to deliver this, as well as the vital business routes that connect Northern Ireland to the UK.
As a proven major driver of trade and investment, direct flight connectivity is worth subsidising, more so than £120 million of public money spent on Brexit festivals. Our Brexit freedoms seem to be isolating us even further from the rest of the world when we most need this access to compensate for the loss of European market access.
:: Mark O’Connell is executive chairman of OCO Global