Ryanair poised for Belfast return five years after exit
Ryanair is set to announce its return to Belfast this week - five years after the budget carrier pulled out of the city.
It ceased flights from Belfast City Airport in 2010 following delays to a planned runway extension. It wanted a longer runway so that it could operate flights to a number of European destinations.
Speculation about the move has been growing since new take-off and landing slots became available at London's Gatwick Airport.
But tomorrow the airline is holding a press event, and it is expected it will announce it's setting up a new hub at Belfast International Airport.
It comes after the Belfast Telegraph revealed the airline was making a grand return to the city after five years away.
Ryanair looks set to begin flying to London's Gatwick airport, with around half a dozen other destinations understood to be on the cards.
In November, industry sources said there's a "strong likelihood" that Ryanair will secure at least some of the Aer Lingus slots and will run a Gatwick service from Belfast International, in competition with easyJet on that route.
A Ryanair spokesman said: "As we have stated, should we secure workable Belfast-Gatwick slots, then we will launch a high frequency service, but we have had no confirmation to date."
British Airways owner, IAG, has been forced to give up the lucrative slots following its takeover of Aer Lingus, and Ryanair has been trying to acquire them, bidding against other airlines.
Ryanair's first indication it could make a return to Belfast came in July, when this newspaper revealed it was eyeing up the new slots.
The airline currently flies to Faro in Portugal and Alicante in Spain from City of Derry Airport.
Its chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, said it was in "discussions with both airports with a view to operating flights to/from Belfast in the future".
And chief executive Michael O'Leary said the airline "will certainly be bidding for the slots".
Belfast International Airport refused to comment on Ryanair's return, but said: "We talk to a range of airlines on an ongoing and frequent basis. The International Airport had a 22% growth in passengers in October, compared to the previous year, and there will be an extra 300,000 seats available in the winter flight programme. Our numbers are continuing to grow, and we're approaching a total of 4.5m passengers a year."
Ryanair carried a record 99.9 million passengers last year which it said followed improvements to customer service.
The rolling annual traffic figure was 17% higher than at the same time a year earlier.
The Dublin-based carrier's November passenger numbers grew by 21% to 7.71 million, while its load factor rose from 88% to 93%.
And just this week Ryanair published the first picture of its new-look interiors, with a radical toning down of its signature yellow.
The airline tweeted a photo graph of the forthcoming Boeing Sky cabins this weekend, prompting a mixed reaction from Twitter followers.
The airline is set to introduce a new website, app, crew uniform and in-flight menu over the next 12 months.