Sky's the limit for Ulster's jet setters
Competition for existing routes is already hotting up ... All this is, of course, great news for customers, and already there is evidence of a price war as carriers compete for passengers on the most popular routes. As the battle for control of Ulster skies rages on, Claire McNeilly examines what boom time means for Northern Ireland air travellers
Published 16/10/2007 | 07:34
Belfast has been called many things in its long turbulent history - but 'hub' was never one of them.
That particular suffix, however, has suddenly become rather commonly used, most recently by dissenting Aer Lingus staff unhappy at major operations being relocated from Shannon in Limerick to the 'Belfast hub'.
But, now that the Republic's airline dispute appears to have been resolved, there is little doubt that Belfast is living up to its new role as a major centre for modern-day airline traffic.
To trot out the old cliché, the sky is the limit - but the good news is that the fares won't be sky high as Ulster folk brace themselves for a torrent of no-frills offers to myriad destinations.
It used to be that Belfast International, or 'Aldergrove', was regarded as a mere gateway to the rest of the UK or, rather, a few select areas of it.
Now there are no fewer than 36 countries, never mind cities, being served by Belfast International and the other two Ulster airports - George Best Belfast City and City of Derry.
Indeed, there are scheduled flights leaving here to over 50 other centres in Europe and beyond - 39 of them from the main 'hub' 18 miles outside Belfast. Those figures will rise even further from the end of this month when Easyjet introduces four new routes to European cities.
And, once Aer Lingus overcomes its problems over the imminent move to Belfast, it plans to add a total of nine new routes starting in December.
A high-profile advertising campaign costing £500,000 is already under way north of the border, with some 10,000 seats sold across all routes so far.
Its one UK destination -London Heathrow - is at the centre of the current dispute.
Aer Lingus' plans for the airport will add Hungary to the number of countries you can visit by leaping onto a plane here.
Apart from the regular carriers such as BMI Baby, Easyjet, Jet2, Continental (the only US-bound operator at the moment), Flyglobespan, Manx2, Wizz Air and Zoom, BA, Flybe and Ryanair, there are around a dozen charter operators operating from Ulster airports.
One of these, My Travel, will be starting a new route to Las Vegas from Belfast City next March, once again increasing the volume of traffic and the number of destinations.
In short, over the next few months destinations such as Vegas, Budapest, Gdansk, Las Palmas and Venice will be appearing on the departures board for the first time.
But competition for existing routes is already hotting up. For instance, once Aer Lingus gets up and running, or rather flying, it will have to compete with both Easyjet (which has increased its advertising budget and placed ads in 32 Irish newspapers) and Jet2 for Malaga and Barcelona-bound passengers.
The former state-owned carrier will also go head-to-head with Easyjet on the Amsterdam, Faro, Geneva, Nice and Rome routes.
All this is great news for customers, and already there is evidence of a price war as carriers compete for passengers on the most popular routes.
You can, for instance, book a return flight to Barcelona, taxes included, for under £50.
With three different airlines competing for these routes, those prices are likely to plummet even further.
Not to be outdone in the scramble to get pale Ulster folk to the sun, Jet2 are weighing in with three new routes - Tenerife at the end of this month, Gran Canaria in early November and Chambery in December.
A one way ticket to the slopes will cost you under £30 with Jet2, including taxes, if you want to arrange your ski holiday independently.
It means Chambery will soon be served by both Belfast airports, with Ski McNeill and Crystalski already offering flights from George Best as part of a package deal.
And speaking of 'the City', it serves seven countries - and 11 cities such as Aberdeen, Exeter and Southampton which are not available on the Belfast International itinerary.
Ryanair is muscling into the act by introducing flights to Glasgow, Prestwick, Liverpool and East Midlands from Belfast City at the end of this month.
The former Harbour Airport, of course, concentrates mainly on domestic traffic. As it stands, the only direct scheduled continental flight is to Rennes in France, operated by Flybe.
But, in addition to the Chambery route, charter operators carry holidaymakers from the City to Verona, Geneva and Salzburg.
Up in the north west, Ryanair planes are a common sight at Eglinton. Already, the City of Derry airport serves five stops in Britain and Ireland - London, Glasgow, Dublin, East Midlands and Liverpool - with Bristol scheduled to hit the timetable next month.
Charter flights to Salou in Spain, are also on offer, alongside Majorca and Lanzarote.
According to industry experts, the Irish carrier's flamboyant chief executive Michael O'Leary will introduce international flights from Belfast City when the airport extends its runway to allow for heavier, longer distance aircraft.
So one thing is certain - at the moment, the passengers simply cannot lose.