The Norterhn Ireland business lobby was today gearing up for a fresh campaign to ringfence the Belfast slots at London’s Heathrow Airport.
The issue has been revived following last week’s £313m takeover deal of bmi by Lufthansa, which is due to take effect in January.
Part of the value accorded to bmi is its ownership of 12% of the landing slots at Heathrow — such slots being worth £10m a pair.
But now that Lufthansa will have access to bmi’s slots, the danger is that the German carrier may switch them to more lucrative long-haul services.
In 2001, when BA abandoned the Belfast Shuttle, it re-allocated the slots to other routes.
Now there are fears that Lufthansa may follow suit, although bmi has always insisted that its eight flights a day service to Belfast is profitable.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the NI Independent Retail Trade Association, said it was vital that the Belfast slots at Heathrow were retained.
“The retail sector in Northern Ireland enjoys significant custom from business people and tourists who use this service and we would clearly be at a disadvantage if the slots are transferred to other routes.”
There have already been reports in the London media that some of bmi’s regional services from Heathrow to airports in Britain may be terminated by Lufthansa.
But a spokesman for bmi said: “The completion of the exercise is expected to take place not before January 12. It is subject to anti-thrust approval and regulatory requirements.
“Discussions regarding the future structure and options are ongoing between Lufthansa, Sir Michael Bishop and bmi."
Aer Lingus also operates to Heathrow — from Belfast International — but regular travellers are keen to retain an element of competition between two carriers.
There has also been speculation that one outcome of Lufthansa’s move will be the spin-off, possibly to Flybe, of bmibaby, which operates from Aldergrove.