Losing one of three connections from Belfast to Gatwick Airport is a "major disappointment" which could affect prices for passengers, an industry insider has claimed.
Flybe, which runs 26 flights to Gatwick from Belfast every week, said it had sold its Gatwick arrival and departure slots to easyJet for £20m, bringing an end to its routes from regional airports to Gatwick.
From the end of March next year – and unless another airline steps in – passengers wishing to fly to the UK's second biggest airport from Belfast City will have no choice but to travel with Aer Lingus.
Flybe blamed high landing fees for smaller aircraft for its decision to leave Gatwick, saying charges had gone up 102% in the past five years. Its other routes – including 14 other destinations from Belfast – will remain.
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson (below) said he was "very disappointed" at Flybe's decision.
"I hope we will see other airlines step in to fill the gap."
An Aer Lingus spokesman said it could step in and add to its existing three daily flights from Belfast to Gatwick.
"If demand is such that extra capacity is required, we will consider it at that point.
An easyJet spokesman said Flybe's move and its purchase of the airline's landing slots would have no effect on its Belfast service. It flies from Belfast International Airport to London Stansted and Gatwick. Peter McMinn, managing director of tour operator Travel Solutions, said Northern Ireland already lacked direct access and losing the Gatwick route was "a major disappointment".
"It's vital that the Northern Ireland public has as much choice as possible and the axing of the Belfast to Gatwick flight is no doubt a restriction on Northern Ireland passengers, especially for those who commute.
"One often finds that a reduction in choice has a knock-on impact on cost to the consumer so it will be interesting to watch what happens in this respect," he said.
But Mukesh Sharma of travel agents McNeill Worldwide said he believed Belfast to London routes had been over-served and that the loss of Flybe's Gatwick route was unlikely to put prices up.
He added: "We will be affected on consumer choice but ultimately it will help the standard of the services left."
The loss of the Flybe service from George Best Belfast City Airport to Gatwick is the latest blow to the air industry here. Flybe also recently withdrew its service to Bristol. Jet2 halted its Belfast International service to Leeds Bradford Airport from last week. Air passenger duty, which is imposed on every leg of internal domestic flights, is blamed by airlines for the removal of routes.