Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Aer Lingus on Heathrow route is no threat: BA chief

Competition from Aer Lingus on the Belfast City Airport to London Heathrow shuttle service is no threat to British Airways (BA), according to the UK flag carrier's chief executive.

Willie Walsh said while the new arrival will provide competition, its move from its Belfast International base at the end of this month to compete head-to-head on the popular route had been expected.

"It had been rumoured in the market for some time, even well before we acquired bmi," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I initiated the review of Belfast as a market for Aer Lingus when I was CEO there. They didn't launch it until after I left but I take some credit for having Aer Lingus in Belfast and I'll take all the credit for having British Airways back here."

Mr Walsh had been chief executive of Aer Lingus before jumping ship to BA in 2005. After a short courtship BA took over bmi early this year, marking the return of the airline to Northern Ireland after an 11-year gap.

Mr Walsh made no bones about the fact bmi had been operating at a loss - of €200m (£163m) on revenue of €819m (£667m) in 2011 - but said the Belfast operation, headquartered at George Best Belfast City Airport, had been a bright spot in the organisation when BA completed its takeover.

"Belfast was probably one of the few parts of the bmi business which was profitable," he said prior to speaking at the Institute of Directors lunch in the city.

"Belfast has always been a good route for bmi and I think it'll be great for BA as we can give it the added focus on connectivity to other destinations from Heathrow."

It's that connectivity which is one of the main reasons the airline is concentrating on the Heathrow route, one where 30% of passengers fly on to other destinations.

But would Mr Walsh look to launch flights direct from Belfast to any new airports?

"I don't think so. Our focus is very much on serving Northern Ireland to Heathrow because that gives access to the rest of the world and fits best with our business model."

And he agreed Aer Lingus CEO Christoph Mueller's assertion to the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week that the two airlines offered a different "value proposition", although maybe not in the way Mr Mueller was alluding to.

"It's true we offer a different value proposition on simple things like checking in a bag, which with Aer Lingus is very expensive whether you do it online or not.

"We allow 23kg free of charge while the same with Aer Lingus would be £60 each way if you don't do it online. They're in a slightly different place and I think consumers are smart enough to assess the value they offer and the value we offer."

But aside from these and other swipes at a favourite bedbug, airport passenger tax, which he described as "the most expensive air tax in the world", Mr Walsh welcomed competition as a good thing for Northern Ireland as a whole.

"It reflects positively on the economy here. You've got four airlines flying between Belfast and London, good competition between us and all four talking about increasing the amount of flying we're doing. I'm delighted from a personal and business level to be back in Belfast."

30%

of passengers fly on to other destinations when landing in Heathrow

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