Belfast City Airport has a handful of different names. Some still refer to it by its original name – the Harbour Airport. Nerds and trainspotters like me sometimes refer to it in writing by its three letter code, BHD. The airport itself places get pride in its newest offical name, which is in honour of one of Northern Ireland’s greatest footballers. It’s just a shame that every time I land here I remember that he was also a serial wife beater and alcoholic. Such foibles are apparently easy to forget if you’re a good footballer.
The airport has a modern and friendly passenger terminal right next to the A2 Belfast – Bangor road, about five minutes from the city centre. It’s also adjacent to the Belfast – Bangor railway line, making it probably the only airport in Ireland to be easily accessible by train: a footbridge connects Sydenham station with the old airport entrance (above). This, however, has been closed to vehicle traffic since the old passenger terminal was decommissioned and the new one constructed about half a mile away to the north east. Passengers arriving and departing by train have to request a shuttle bus: easy enough in the terminal but dependant on a mobile phone if you arrive by train and find the almost permanently broken courtesy phone in the shelter on the left of the picture above.
While waiting for the bus to come and collect you there is the occasional plane taking off or landing near by, just beyond rows of neatly parked rental cars. There are also discarded remnants of the old passenger terminal, and the majority of a large structure (on the right in the photograph) that was used for checking arriving vehicles during the Troubles.
Most entertainingly, there are a number of old advertising hoardings that haven’t been removed since the old passenger terminal was shut down. I might possibly have seen this very same advert for the now twice rebranded Jersey European when I made my first visit to Northern Ireland in the mid-nineties, flying in on an Air UK flight from London Stansted. Jersey European became British European and then just FlyBe. Air UK became KLM UK. I hope there’s another airport somewhere with a fading advert for Air UK somewhere, although I’ve yet to find it.
At 20h00 this evening, Sheffield reclaimed a title it’s not held since 1997 – the city (population 525,800) is now the largest in Europe without its own airport.
Sheffield City Airport has closed tonight, barely eleven years after it opened. The airport lost commercial service in 2002, supposedly because of post-9/11 travel fears, but more reasonably because low cost airlines never established service. The runway was built frustratingly short – too short for a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, the two aircraft that now dominate low cost airline service in Europe.
When I arrived in Sheffield in 2001/2, the City Airport had (if my facts are straight) multiple daily flights to Amsterdam, Belfast, Brussels, Dublin, London City and Jersey. British Airways, AirUK, Sabena and numerous smaller charter operators all used the airport, which still features the beautifully simple little terminal building designed for it by Sheffield City Council’s architecture department. It was, by all accounts, a delightful little airport to fly in and out of, barely 10km from the city centre.
I’ve heard many grumbles from other Sheffielders about the airport’s demise (see this thread on the lively Sheffield Forum), namely that Peel Airports who own the site entered into an agreement with the City Council that basically allowed them to buy the airport land for a single figure sum if they could prove that the airport had no commercial future. Their attempts to draw new airlines and services to the airport were notably languid. Understandable really, since they were far too busy investing in and developing the all new Robin Hood Airport about thirty kilometers away in Finningley. Many blamed the short runway for limiting commercial service, although many airlines (Eastern Airways, FlyBe etc) are doing very well operating regional links in planes that could use Sheffield City.
After commercial service ended in 2002, the airport continued as a private aviation airfield, with pleasure flights and private aircraft using the landing strip. The South Yorkshire Ambulance and Police have helicopters stationed there, and they’ll continue to use a limited heliport facility. The runway and the rest of the site will be torn up to form a business park.