New Belfast to Barcelona flight may lead to more European routes for City Airport
A new flight to Barcelona from Belfast City Airport could open the door to further expansion in Italy and other European hubs, it's been claimed.
The facility has been fostering strong links with Willie Walsh's International Airlines Group (IAG), owner of the Vuelling airline, thanks to a successful British Airways link from the City to Heathrow.
BA is also owned by IAG.
The twice-weekly flights to El Prat airport, which begin next May, will compete with Belfast International Airport's Barcelona service run by Easyjet.
This year has seen a flurry of new routes from Northern Ireland at both facilities, including services to Iceland, Prague and Florida.
Vueling, a newcomer to Northern Ireland, was founded in Spain in 2004 and flies to over 100 destinations including Paris, Brussels, Rome, Madrid, with a growing presence in Russia, North Africa and Scandinavia.
The firm was in talks with George Best Belfast City Airport for over a year before selecting it as one of a small number of UK airports at which it is choosing to expand.
Katy Best, commercial and marketing director at Belfast City said that while the airport is best known for domestic links, management is keen to attract more European shorthaul destinations.
"We've been very candid about our strategy for growth and we are seeking key opportunities both in domestic markets and further afield," she said.
"We want to fly to cities where there is potential for strong business links and good opportunities for both inbound and outbound tourism, and this announcement is part of our strategic plan to expand our European network."
While there will be no new jobs created in the short term, Ms Best said that if the route proves successful, the Barcelona-based plane could move home to Belfast, and even lead to more routes.
"IAG have been extremely pleased with the performance of British Airways in Belfast, which has acted as a key part of feeder traffic into Heathrow.
"Vueling is a new brand for Northern Ireland and has a network across Europe so we would very much see the growth potential from Belfast into some of Vueling's other hubs right across Spain and into Italy and France."
In August 2013, IAG announced its plans to deploy an additional 120 A320s to Vueling between 2015 and 2020, with the airline expected to be one of Europe's largest low cost carriers by the end of 2014.
The announcement has been welcomed by Tourism Ireland and also by Gerry Lennon, chief executive of Visit Belfast.
"Developing new, direct access routes from more European cities to Belfast is crucial to supporting the continued growth of the tourism industry and we look forward to welcoming thousands of new and existing business and leisure travellers from Spain after the first of the Vueling flights start to arrive in May," Mr Lennon said.
"Supported by millions of pounds of investment, the development of world class attractions, a thriving hospitality industry and concerted marketing, these efforts will support our ambition to see the value of tourism double by 2020."
Last week, Flybe began a schedule of three daily flights from Belfast City Airport to London City Airport.
Earlier this year a new service to Sheffield was also launched.