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Another twist in tale of Michael O'Leary's turbulent love affair with Northern Ireland


Flying high: Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary before a 2016 press conference in Belfast

Flying high: Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary before a 2016 press conference in Belfast

Flying high: Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary before a 2016 press conference in Belfast

Ryanair's return to George Best Belfast City Airport after more than a decade is another twist in chief executive Michael O'Leary's love-hate relationship with our two biggest airports.

The no-frills airline is to offer flights to six sunshine destinations in Spain and one each in Italy and Portugal.

It is great timing for the City Airport to land such a big prize - exactly one year ago, it was facing the collapse of regional airline Flybe, then its biggest customer.

But rather than a complete break-up with the International after five years in a steady relationship, Ryanair will maintain its base there in the short term at least.

A Ryanair spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph that it was offered very favourable terms to come back to the City Airport.

He implied that it is now down to the International to come up with the goods - in other words, better terms.

For now, the routes of Malaga, Alicante and Milan Bergamo are on sale at both airports, along with three Poland routes from the International.

The City Airport is also offering Mallorca, Faro, Barcelona, Ibiza and Valencia.

But the spokesman added that it is not so much falling in and out of love as in and out of discussions.

He explained: "I would always say, we fall in and fall out of discussions of airports but we never actually fall out long term, we're very pragmatic, always very open to discussions."

The move tells us that the Covid-19 crisis may work in the airlines' favour when it comes to negotiating with airports.

Airports will be so desperate to get going again after a year of virtually no international travel that extremely favourable conditions will be offered to airlines.

That will be to get people through the airport and spending money in the newsagents, coffee shops, souvenir shops and bars which are a huge part of an airport's commercial offer.

For years Ryanair's colourful boss O'Leary labelled Belfast International Airport "Lough Neagh Airport" in a disparaging reference to its out of town location.

His dealings with Belfast City were pretty turbulent, too. He announced its withdrawal from the airport after three years in 2010 after losing patience over a public inquiry on a planning application to extend its runway.

Turning the air blue with his usual flair, Mr O'Leary fumed: "If Belfast doesn't want (it) and the authorities up here don't recognise that Ryanair wants to invest in Belfast, wants to invest in Northern Ireland tourism, we're not going to beat our head against the bloody wall for more than three years to do it, then to hell with you." But back then, he wasn't ruling out a comeback - though probably did not imagine then that it would take 11 years.

He vowed that "we'll come back if somebody at some point in time up here makes a f****** decision and delivers us a very small, very modest runway extension to allow us to do nothing other than fly safely from Belfast City to continental Europe".

But there has been no runway extension since then, and instead the airline spokesman has said ways have been found around the runway size, and that the runway limitations do not affect all of the Ryanair routes.

Ryanair's gesture of confidence also puts the company at odds with Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Last week, as holiday bookings from England jumped six-fold after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his country's reopening dates, Ms O'Neill said: "I don't think I could stand here today and say to people it's okay, go and book your holiday."

But Ryanair feels that the success of the vaccine roll-out so far suggests we will be in an even better position to resume foreign holidays by June.

If not, you can change your flight at no extra cost - a useful insurance policy for even the most optimistic of sun-seekers these days.

Belfast Telegraph