Ryanair seeking Belfast return as it bids for slots freed up by Aer Lingus
Ryanair could be set for a grand return to Belfast as it bids on sought-after slots freed up amid the Aer Lingus sell-off.
The budget carrier is one of a number of airlines which will try to snap up at least two daily flights between here and London's Gatwick, as part IAG's requirement to relinquish some 10 daily slots as part of its takeover of Aer Lingus.
Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary said the airline - which is in the process of selling its almost 30% stake in Aer Lingus - "will certainly be bidding for the slots".
"We would certainly want to expand services we offer at Gatwick," he said.
But another possible option could be easyJet, which could further extend its existing services from Belfast to Gatwick.
The airline did not wish to comment.
Ryanair's chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs told the Belfast Telegraph it was in "discussions with both airports with a view to operating flights to/from Belfast in the future".
But the airline reiterated concerns over the UK's air passenger duty (APD) - a levy on flights which often makes flying from the Republic a cheaper option for passengers.
"Ryanair is always interested in new routes. There is huge demand for Ryanair from customers in Northern Ireland who already travel with us from Dublin because they get the lowest fares, a choice of 90 destinations and they avoid APD."
But it's unlikely Stormont will bring an end to the air tax on flights. The Belfast Telegraph revealed last month that it's believed the Department of Finance and Personnel has sided with an independent report that concludes the cost of Northern Ireland going it alone in abolishing the contentious tax could not be justified.
Ryanair pulled its services from Belfast City Airport in 2010 following delays to a planned runway extension.
It has just been given the all-clear by the UK's Competition and Markets Authority to sell its stake in Aer Lingus to IAG.
Meanwhile, one aviation expert said there was a possibility easyJet could expand its Belfast to Gatwick route.
"Aer Lingus will stay on, but there will now be more competition on the route. They could end up with easyJet or someone like Norwegian, which is at Gatwick already," he said.
"They will put it out to tender, but I would say easyJet would be a very strong prospect to take the slots.
"And IAG may be affected elsewhere instead, reducing frequency somewhere else."
Another possibility if the Aer Lingus service from Belfast City Airport to Gatwick is reduced would be the prospect of larger planes on the route.
A spokesman for Belfast International Airport said: "Belfast International will be watching what happens very closely. From a Northern Ireland perspective, it would have been a better option if slots had been made available to easyJet at Heathrow.
"There is clearly sufficient demand for access to the London market and we will work with all parties to ensure that maximum connectivity is maintained."
IAG will hand over five daily takeoff and landing slots at Gatwick, which can then be used by competitors to operate routes from both Dublin and Belfast to the London airport.
Two of the slots must be operated between Dublin and Gatwick, and one between Belfast and Gatwick. The two remaining slots can be used to serve either Dublin or Belfast.
IAG, headed by Willie Walsh, has also promised that Aer Lingus will continue to carry connecting passengers to long-haul flights operated by competing airlines out of Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Amsterdam, Shannon and Dublin.
The European Commission had raised concerns the original terms of the merger could lead to a lack of competition on routes, including London to Belfast.
The European Commission has cleared the €1.3bn (£1bn) takeover of Aer Lingus by International Airlines Group (IAG).
But a caveat of that proposed merger is that IAG gives up five daily Gatwick slots. At least one of those slot pairs will be for Belfast, which will prompt interest from other airlines.
Ryanair has said it will bid for the freed up slots.