Gatwick chairman Sir Roy Mc Nulty: Belfast will keep London air routes
Sir Roy McNulty - one of Northern Ireland's best-known business figures and chairman of Gatwick - has blasted "scaremongering" fears that Belfast could lose its key business routes to London Heathrow if expansion plans are rejected.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Sir Roy - who has spent most of his working life in Northern Ireland - made a strong case for the expansion of Gatwick Airport, claiming that it would further strengthen Belfast to London routes. The Donegal man - who is also chairman of the late Lord Ballyedmond's Norbrook - rejected claims that airlines would pull the plug on Belfast to Heathrow slots, in search of more profitable links.
"I don't think so. This fear has been voiced for many years. I spent most of my working life in Northern Ireland, and when you look back at the air service to London, it's vastly better than it was 20 years ago," the former chairman and chief executive of Short Brothers said.
"The story Heathrow are trying to stir up, in our view, is little more than scaremongering."
"It's also very misleading. It doesn't bring out that Northern Ireland air links are not all about Heathrow.
"It's less than half the traffic today. Gatwick flies more to and from Northern Ireland than Heathrow. Those links would only strengthen with Gatwick expansion."
The Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, is expected to publish its final report on whether Heathrow or Gatwick should expand this summer.
Earlier this month, Heathrow Airport's director of external affairs warned that Belfast's links "could be" cut as pressure mounts on British Airways and others to replace regional routes with more valuable international flights.
Making a case for a second runway at Gatwick - one of three options on the cards including a third runway at Heathrow or the extension of an existing one - Sir Roy said it would "encourage competition" and be cost-effective as well as being a more "achievable" and "sustainable" solution.
"Belfast's own interests are served better by a Gatwick expansion rather than Heathrow," he said.
"The opportunity to expand services would be there, and we would be encouraging that."
"Lastly, maybe most importantly, Gatwick is by far the most deliverable solution. Most people in the debate agree something needs to be done. It would be an absolute disgrace if nothing is achieved.
"Frequency and low fares are the end result of competition. The other thing that's important, what most largish cities and others want, is more direct flights from their local airport.
"The Heathrow model of a hub is strategically based on sucking in traffic from the rest of the country. But that's to the detriment of airports like Birmingham and Manchester."
Sir Roy also said cutting air passenger duty was "very important", especially in regards to regional UK routes such as Belfast.
"I think it's very important, especially for regional services. Northern Ireland is sitting next door to someone who doesn't have APD," he said.
And he said a proposed Air Route Development Fund to attract new links was "well worth considering".
Sir Roy said while IAG boss Willie Walsh says he remains committed to keeping an Aer Lingus route between Belfast and Heathrow for the next five years, "in the end, normal rules of economics will apply".
IAG is currently in the process of trying to buy the Republic's main airline.