Irish budget carrier, Ryanair is to return to the Belfast market this summer when it introduces a four times daily link between London Gatwick and Belfast International Airport from March 2016. This will be facilitated by the opening of a new base in the Northern Ireland capital, the host city for next year’s Routes Europe forum.
The low-cost carrier will initially position a single Boeing 737-800 at Belfast International Airport to support the London Gatwick operation, a route that it will directly compete with easyJet. A further two aircraft will be stationed at the airport later in 2016 to introduce five more routes for the winter season from October 2016.
Although the airline remains tight-lipped over the destinations it will serve, local sources suggest that they could comprise domestic links to the likes of East Midlands, Leeds Bradford or Newcastle, and international flights to Barcelona, Berlin or Brussels.
Graham Keddie, managing director, Belfast International Airport has hinted that key routes to Germany and Sandinavia could be included in Ryanair's future network strategy from Northern Ireland, but has reinforced calls for the scrapping, or at least reduction in Air Passenger Duty (APD), to balance the playing field with the Republic of Ireland.
"Despite the damaging APD, this announcement shows Belfast International can defy the odds. Just imagine what we could achieve if the ‘yoke’ of APD were removed?" he said.
The Belfast base announcement followed the revelation that Ryanair has become the first airline to carry over 100 million passengers in a calendar year. The airline witnessed a 25 per cent increase in year-on-year traffic in December 2015 increasing its full year count to 101.4 million passengers, thanks in part to reduced fares to stimulated demand following the terrorist attacks in Paris and related events in Brussels.
“Our traffic growth over the past two years has been remarkable, rising by 50 per cent over our December 2013 traffic figure of five million, said Kenny Jacobs, Chief Marketing Officer, Ryanair.
Ryanair's new Belfast - London link has been made possible following the IAG acquisition of Aer Lingus and the latter’s closure of its own flights at the end of this quarter between London Gatwick and Belfast City. The flight will operate using slots in the UK capital given up by Aer Lingus as part of its network realignment.
"This is a significant and far-reaching announcement by Ryanair. The Gatwick slots given up by Aer Lingus as part of the IAG takeover, are being safeguarded and used for the benefit of Northern Ireland. Gatwick is growing in popularity, and it was crucial to retain them,” said Graham Keddie.
“This very positive news is the equivalent of a major inward investment without the strain on public finances. It will deliver thousands of new visitors and hundreds of welcome new jobs,” he added.
Although Ryanair already serves the Northern Ireland market through its presence at City of Derry Airport, it has been absent from the Belfast market for over five years. It launched flights from Belfast City in November 2007 but left the market in November 2010 following a disagreement over development work at the airport.
During this three year period it carried an estimated three million passengers on its domestic flights linking Belfast with Bristol, East Midlands, Glasgow Prestwick, Liverpool and London Stansted, according to MIDT data, including almost 1.2 million passengers to and from London.
Our analysis highlights that up to 850,000 passengers a year are currently flying between Belfast and London Gatwick with around 60 per cent of that demand from/to Belfast International.