Rugby fans have reacted with fury to sky-high flight prices to get to the Heineken Cup Final in Twickenham next month.
Thousands of people from Northern Ireland are expected to attend the historic game between Ulster and provincial rivals Leinster on May 19.
But as the price of return flights soared towards £500 on Monday, some airlines have been accused of benefiting at the expense of supporters.
Irish rugby legend and solicitor Trevor Ringland said extra flights — not price hikes — should be the answer to increased demand.
“We have no problem with the airlines making profit but they shouldn’t make excessive profit out of a situation like this,” Mr Ringland said.
“The fans have a limited number of ways of getting to the match and in the circumstances I would hope that the airlines would not be making more out of it than they would normally make.
“They should try and put on extra flights or just be careful that they’re not exploiting the situation. You want the fans who have travelled to all the matches to be able to go to this one, not just those who can afford it.”
When Ulster take on Leinster in the 82,000-capacity London stadium it will be their first final appearance for 13 years.
Tickets for the game have appeared on auction sites, with demands of almost 10 times face value prices. One seller is asking £560 for a set of three £65 face-value tickets, and now fans are angry at how much it is going to cost to get there.
A day return with easyJet from Belfast to London Gatwick was coming in at almost £430 on Monday, while the same-day service between Dublin and Heathrow with Aer Lingus was €282 (£230).
A Belfast Telegraph survey of various flight options — most of which required at least one night's stay — found Belfast to Birmingham cost the least at around £142, but people would then need to be prepared to travel to Twickenham.
Bmi was offering a £477.97 fare from George Best Belfast City Airport to Heathrow leaving on Saturday and returning on Sunday, with Aer Lingus charging £391 for its next-day return.
Andrew Cooper, a lifelong rugby fan and teacher from Comber, said he can’t afford to go to the final and blasted the airlines.
“This shouldn’t be allowed. It is absolutely scandalous,” Mr Cooper said.
“We’re in the middle of a recession and people are finding it hard enough to make ends meet, so there should be a price ceiling for flights above which the airlines can’t charge.”
PR expert Chris Harrison bought a package with Ulster Sports Travel which cost £340 for a Belfast to Luton day-return.
Meanwhile, 32-year-old Ryan Wilson, from Enniskillen, snapped up a flight with Aer Lingus from Knock Airport in Co Mayo to Gatwick on Saturday May 19, returning with Ryanair on Sunday — which cost £95 when he booked it last Saturday.
A spokeswoman for easyJet said it prides itself on making travel easy and affordable and offers thousands of low fares every day.
“When there is a specific event, like a sporting fixture, demand often increases very quickly, meaning that in turn fares rise due to the scarcity of available seats,” she added.
Supporters can sail and rail with Stena Line from £98 per person, or travel from Belfast to Cairnryan or Liverpool from £70 per person for a car with four people.
Irish Ferries, meanwhile, said its crossing from Rosslare to Pembroke works out at €100 (£82) per person for four travelling with a car.
Already two £35 tickets are on the net for £600
The demand for tickets for this year’s Heineken Cup Final has reached fever pitch after Ulster’s victory over Edinburgh at the weekend.
With just 7,500 tickets allocated to the province, however, fans have voiced fears that there may not be enough for those intending to travel to Twickenham for the first all-Irish European final clash.
There were no tickets for sale on the website Ticketmaster on Monday night, while two £35 face-value tickets were on sale on eBay for £600.
Ulster Rugby spokeswoman Lyndsey Irwin said that the European Rugby Club, the tournament organisers, started to sell tickets last August, after the venue for the final had been decided.
“They made 55,000 tickets available in a public sale and released them in batches during the season and they held back 15,000 to be split evenly between the two finalists,” she said. “When we played the quarter-final at the beginning of April there were less than 500 tickets left from the general sale allocation. At this stage in the day there are actually no more tickets left; it’s not as if the tournament organisers are hiding a batch of them up their sleeves.”
An industry insider said this is typical of the way tickets are allocated for major sporting events.
Football’s Champions League final is being played on the same day (May 19) at Munich’s Allianz arena, which holds 70,000, but Chelsea and Bayern Munich’s ticket allocation is 17,500 each, with the rest of the tickets sold to so-called neutrals. That means around 35,000 tickets can be bought up to a year in advance of the game.
If the fan’s team doesn’t make it into the final, these tickets are then usually sold on — mostly for profit.
This is the free market at work. Get used to it
By Simon Calder
Whose brilliant idea was it to host the final of the Heineken Cup in England?
After all, any shrewd rugby fan could have predicted that teams from the island of Ireland would prevail.
Accordingly, the ideal choice of a neutral country in which to play the deciding match would be Scotland or Wales – Murrayfield or the Millennium Stadium are both more accessible for fans of Ulster and Leinster than “the home of rugby”, as Twickenham styles itself.
Even as the full-time whistle went in the semi-finals you could see air fares to London rise before your very eyes. Airlines’ reservations systems are tuned to take advantage of a sudden spike in demand.
I have seen prime departures on the day of the final nudging £500 return, about five times the level I would normally expect. I daresay they will rise even higher.
You may see this as scandalous profiteering by greedy airlines, taking advantage of fans’ natural loyalties. Well, while I understand this perspective, my view is that the market is working well for the benefit of travellers.
For a moment, consider the widely expressed view that fares should be “capped” to prevent travel firms making a mint out of the all-Irish final. Who decides the limit, and how much should it be? Let’s suppose the maximum any airline could charge for a Belfast-London flight were £300 return: how are those precious seats allocated among the many fans who would be buyers at that price?
The free market avoids all those awkward questions, and also encourages enterprise. Airlines are already looking at adding extra capacity.
Fans are incentivised to develop their own strategies for evading high fares. For example, search for a cheap flight to Birmingham; a fast rail link whisks you to London in little over an hour. Go back to basics, in the form of a bus and ferry combo. Or fly to Heathrow via Paris. With no French interest in the final, there should be plenty of empty seats.
Simon Calder is a leading travel journalist