EasyJet adds new aircraft to Belfast base - 'wishlist' of routes includes Greece and Canary islands
Belfast holidaymakers could be flying to Greek islands or the Canaries next year when easyJet adds a new aircraft to its Northern Ireland fleet.
Sophie Dekkers, director of the UK market for easyJet, revealed the plans for potential "exciting new leisure destinations" as the airline reported a 21.5% rise in annual pre-tax profits to £581m for the 12 months to the end of September, up from £478m in the previous year.
Passenger numbers were also up 7% to 64.8m and the amount of available seats on easyJet flights grew by 5.1% to 71.5m, of which almost 91% were filled.
It was also reported that 57% of existing customers are rebooking each year.
Ms Dekkers reiterated the airline's support for its Northern Ireland base at Belfast International Airport and said that further expansion may be in the pipeline next year.
Earlier this month, easyJet announced two new routes to Icelandic capital Reykjavik and the Croatian city of Split.
The Iceland route begins on December 12, while the eastern European route, operating once a week throughout the summer, will commence from May 20 next year.
Ms Dekker said that sales on the Iceland route had exceeded all expectations and broke records for new route sales.
Currently, easyJet has 14 flights to Amsterdam each week, 14 to Paris and 12 to Geneva.
In the domestic bracket, there are 78 flights a week to Liverpool and other popular short-haul flights include those to Glasgow and Gatwick. "Next week we are compiling our long wishlist for next year's destinations, which will be based on demand, revenue and viability," she said.
"At the moment we have five Airbus A319 aircraft in Belfast (covering longer haul routes), which can hold 196 passengers, next year we will have four A319s and one A320, which seat 180 passengers but can fly longer routes.
"Having this aircraft unlocks the opportunity for Greek islands or the Canary islands and gives more scope to broaden our networks and we want to start looking at more exciting leisure destinations," she continued.
However, Ms Dekker said that longer haul routes were not part of easyJet's business model, which does not include spending money on accommodating flight crews in hotels overnight. She added that easyJet was happy to be based at Belfast International Airport, unlike rivals Aer Lingus which switched to the George Best Belfast City Airport in 2012.
"Belfast City Airport has physical constraints linked to runway length which would curtail our network," she said.
"Belfast International Airport allows us to fly both domestic and European routes and we've always seen reasonable returns.
"We did try the Luton route from Belfast City to see if proximity to the city centre would make a difference to passenger numbers, but we did not see any great advantage compared to the International.
"We will keep with what we know and we are where we are for a reason," Ms Dekkers added.
On the thorny issue of London airport expansion, she said that the company would be reserving judgment until it had reviewed all the facts and figures.
The Airports Commission says there is a need for one additional runway in the south east of England by 2030, with the three options having been shortlisted to a third runway at Heathrow, lengthening an existing runway at Heathrow, or a second runway at Gatwick.
Business leaders in Northern Ireland are currently debating which option would be more beneficial for the economy in terms of business and tourism traffic to the region.
EasyJet has a fleet of 226 planes.
It said the acquisition of slots at Gatwick airport from rival airline Flybe had boosted its performance during the trading period.