IAG has 'no plans' to change Belfast to London routes if it buys Aer Lingus
IAG has said it has "no current plans" to alter its route network between Belfast and Heathrow as it closes in on a deal to secure Irish state airline Aer Lingus.
Aer Lingus is expected to be sold to International Airlines Group (IAG) - owners of British Airways - in a deal worth €1.4bn (£1bn).
Asked whether both Aer Lingus and British Airways would continue their Belfast City to Heathrow routes as normal following competition of sale, a spokeswoman for IAG told the Belfast Telegraph: "We have no current plans to change the route network between Belfast City and Heathrow".
British Airways returned to Belfast after an 11-year hiatus, and operates six daily flights to Heathrow.
It took over the route from BMI in 2012, and since then IAG boss Willie Walsh - who formerly ran Aer Lingus - has consistently reiterated the company's commitment to Belfast.
Aer Lingus has three flights to the London airport each day, with the Heathrow link key for Northern Ireland business connectivity. But IAG could decide to share out the frequency of its Heathrow flights from Belfast across both airlines, according to one aviation analyst.
"They could end up becoming integrated - for example, British Airways could reduce their flight numbers and Aer Lingus could increase their capacity," he said.
"It could work out better for them if they share the frequency, and Aer Lingus could possibly move to Heathrow's Terminal 5 to integrate with BA." Economist John Simpson believes there could be a restructuring of both British Airways and Aer Lingus daily timetables - with a small reduction in flight frequency to Heathrow. "I think in the early years we will see planes out of Belfast flying both the logos of Aer Lingus and British Airways," he said.
"But they may rationalise, and reduce the total number of flights."
Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, said it was crucial the number of flights to Heathrow remained.
"We hope there is still the choice and that both routes would remain," she said.
"We need our exporters to be able to get to markets, make sure there are the same number of flights and make sure business is done."
Nigel Smyth, director of CBI in Northern Ireland, said it was "vital we have good access to Heathrow and competitive prices".
The sale must still be agreed shareholders - including Ryanair - and will also need regulatory approval, along with the green light from Dail Eireann, as the state owns 25% of the airline.
Business leaders in the Republic have warned that any Aer Lingus sale must be conditional on critical Heathrow landing slots being ringfenced for services to regional areas - such as Cork and Shannon.
Aer Lingus has stressed that IAG plans to operate the airline as a separate business.
Meanwhile, asked whether it could make a return to Belfast, a spokesman for Ryanair said: "Our position has not changed. The board of Ryanair will consider any offer on its merits, if and when an offer is made."
The airline pulled out of Belfast City Airport in 2010.