Fears for Aer Lingus' Belfast route despite IAG's promise
IAG boss Willie Walsh has said he will "continue to serve the Northern Ireland" market, as his deal to buy Aer Lingus comes one step closer.
And Aer Lingus would continue to operate its daily flights from Belfast City Airport to London Heathrow for at least another five years if a takeover from his International Airlines Group (IAG) goes ahead.
The airline group told the Belfast Telegraph "there are no plans to change Belfast services".
Aer Lingus currently has three daily flights to Heathrow, with British Airways - which is already owned by IAG - flying six times a day.
The airline group plans to buy Aer Lingus in a deal worth €1.4bn (£1bn), after being given the green light from the Irish government, which owns a 25% stake.
But while the former pilot -who once headed the Republic's flag carrier - did not specify whether the frequency of both airlines would continue, he said he saw "opportunities to work with the airport".
But concerns remain over whether services from Belfast would be cut following any takeover.
One aviation expert said "it simply wouldn't make sense for IAG to have two group airlines flying on the Belfast City Airport to Heathrow route".
He said the most likely outcome in the future could be "one airline with slightly fewer daily flights".
Last night Belfast City Airport did not wish to comment on the future of its key route.
IAG has made "legally binding" commitments to retaining its Republic routes to Heathrow for at least seven years and "in the first five years post-acquisition, its other London Heathrow slots on routes to and from airports on the island of Ireland".
And while remaining positive about the future of the key business routes, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ann McGregor said it "wasn't clear" and remained "ambiguous" as to what will happen after the five years commitment.
"We would hope that means flying out of Belfast, as it's important to have choice," she said.
"We would want it to be protected, and it's a pity it's not seven years like Dublin, Cork and Shannon."
And job guarantees for Aer Lingus workers clash with an internal company report suggesting huge staff cuts, the Dail heard yesterday.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said he had knowledge of an internal company report suggesting major cuts across the airline.
Currently, Aer Lingus has two planes based at Belfast City in the winter, rising to three in the summer - out of a fleet of 47. Another aviation expert said he was confident both British Airways and Aer Lingus routes, and frequency, would remain after a takeover.
"At the moment they complement each other, and I think it would continue," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Walsh said he plans to grow the Aer Lingus brand in the US - with the addition of long-haul routes.
He admitted there would be some job losses at its Dublin base but vowed the deal would increase jobs overall at the carrier.
"We believe Ireland is a growth market, the economy here is growing, there is huge demand into Ireland, particularly from the US," he said.