By Daniel Hunter

Business leaders in Northern Ireland have demanded that the Government takes urgent action to boost private sector growth, jobs and exports by ensuring the UK continues to have a successful hub airport providing a gateway to overseas markets.

The call to action follows the publication of new research by leading economic analysts Oxford Economics which demonstrates the vital role that aviation plays in supporting Northern Ireland’s economy. In particular, the research underlines the importance of access to the UK’s only hub airport at Heathrow in connecting Northern Ireland businesses to a wide array of global destinations.

The research, launched today at a summit of 40 leading businesses convened by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and BAA, shows that:

- One in ten jobs in Northern Ireland depend on foreign investment — and half of these companies can only reach their home market through a hub airport.

- Aviation supports £1bn of exports from Northern Ireland.

- Foreign tourists spend £195m a year in Northern Ireland’s economy and account for 360,000 visits — 150,000 of whom arrive by air.

- Northern Ireland benefits directly from having a global hub in Britain.
- Capital expenditure at Heathrow brought in £13.3m for Northern Ireland suppliers in 2010. Heathrow directly supports 1,000 tourism jobs and 900 airport jobs in Northern Ireland.

As the UK’s only international hub airport, Heathrow is a gateway for international business, tourism and passenger flows to, from and through the UK. Among crucial growth markets, UK businesses trade 20 times as much with countries with daily flights than those with less frequent or no direct service. Yet constraints at Heathrow - which is running at over 99% capacity — mean that the whole of the UK is missing out on growing international demand.

Business leaders in the world’s fastest growing economies say they are being put off from investing in the UK because of a lack of direct flights, with two thirds of business leaders in emerging economies saying that better air connections from their home countries to France, Germany and Holland mean they are more likely to do business with those countries than the UK.

Heathrow is a hub airport where transfer passengers support network airlines. Without those transfer passengers, direct long-haul connections between the UK and many important business destinations are not viable. Northern Ireland’s businesses alone cannot sustain demand for daily flights to emerging markets, but by pooling that demand from around the UK and beyond, a hub airport can.

"Encouraging increased trade between UK firms and overseas markets is vital to the rebalancing of the UK economy," Ann McGregor, CEO of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, said.

"While firms are being urged to trade with new partners in emerging markets, they are hindered by the lack of connections to these countries, in turn hurting both inward investment and Britain’s export potential. This is a real issue for Northern Ireland as we have dozens of members that trade with or aspire to do business with the likes of Brazil, India and China.

"To support trade and Northern Ireland’s economy, it is vital for our firms to be able to make connections to these emerging markets. That means the UK government’s aviation policy must consider all options that could help our businesses seek new sources of growth. While there are more ambitious long-term projects for aviation that can be examined, in the near term Heathrow must continue to be part of the solution if Northern Ireland is not to miss out on trading opportunities."

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