Virgin unveils Florida flights to Orlando from Belfast International
It could be 'lift-off' for a new golden age of air travel for Northern Ireland as Virgin Atlantic has unveiled Belfast International Airport as the location for its first scheduled flights from Ireland to Florida - home of Disney World and Universal Studios.
The eight flights between Belfast and Orlando, Florida, next summer will be the first time in around 15 years that a jumbo jet has flown on scheduled flights in Northern Irish skies.
Holidaymakers will be able to depart from Belfast International on a 747-400 for Orlando on four Thursdays between the end of June and mid-July next year, with four return flights on Thursdays in July.
Belfast International, which has recently lost ground to Dublin Airport's bigger range of international links, now hopes to attract southern travellers wishing to fly Virgin Atlantic.
A spokesman for Virgin said the flights were currently limited to next year but added: "We keep our flying programme under continuous review and if the new services are a success we could look to continue them in the future."
Business development director at Belfast International Uel Hoey said he hoped the airport could emulate the success of the link experienced in Glasgow, where Virgin started with a limited number of Orlando flights before increasing them to 50 per year.
He said it came after three years of talks: "This is one of the most exciting announcements we have had at Belfast International Airport in recent years. We are delighted that an airline with the status and reputation of Virgin Atlantic has decided to expand its network by adding Northern Ireland departures.
"This will be the only Virgin-branded operation from the island of Ireland to an incredibly popular holiday destination and we look forward to catering for the needs of travellers across the length and breadth of the island."
Doreen McKenzie, Northern Ireland director of the Association of British Travel Agents, said the new link could lead to even more long-haul routes from Belfast.
She said: "Once the airline sees what the level of demand is like, I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if it decided to increase frequency, and perhaps look at other long-haul holiday destinations as well."
Currently the United Airlines link to Newark near New York – which is to be suspended in the first few months of next year – is the only other long-haul link from Northern Ireland.
Virgin Atlantic is the second operator to announce flights between Belfast and Florida.
In June Thomas Cook Airlines announced two flights, on June 30 and July 7 to Orlando, which would allow passengers up to a two-week holiday before flying back.
However, Virgin Atlantic will be provided four outward and return flights.
The airline said the route was part of a codeshare agreement with Delta Air Lines, so customers would be able to use Delta services to travel onwards from Orlando.
Tickets go on sale this week through Virgin Holidays and through Virgin Altantic from July 25.