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Coronavirus 'may leave permanent scar' on Northern Ireland flight links as easyJet latest to ground its fleet


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EasyJet planes sit on the tarmac at Liverpool John Lennon Airport (Peter Byrne/PA)

EasyJet planes sit on the tarmac at Liverpool John Lennon Airport (Peter Byrne/PA)

Question: Esmond Birnie

Question: Esmond Birnie

Nigel McDowell/Ulster University

EasyJet planes sit on the tarmac at Liverpool John Lennon Airport (Peter Byrne/PA)

Northern Ireland's air connectivity may be permanently scarred as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it's been claimed, as easyJet became the latest airline to ground flights.

The company, which has 270 staff here, said parking all 344 of its planes "removes significant cost" as the aviation industry struggles to cope with a collapse in demand caused by the outbreak of the virus.

With around 37 routes out of Belfast International, easyJet is Northern Ireland's biggest airline. The company said it had reached agreement with the Unite union on furlough arrangements for its cabin crew. The deal starts tomorrow for two months.

Belfast International Airport is now handling only cargo flights. An airport spokeswoman said it remains open and was a "critical arterial airlink for emergency medical and cargo operations 24 hours a day, all year round".

She added: "We are still working hard to ensure that vital supplies continue to arrive daily so we can help those who need it most."

Senior economist Dr Esmond Birnie of Ulster University said he feared NI's connectivity would be "permanently scarred" as a result of the grounding of fleets.

Last month 15 routes went from Belfast City Airport following the collapse of regional airline Flybe.

Dr Birnie said: "I think it's understandable this could be a concern that there may be a permanent scarring effect from the current shutdown."

Dr Birnie added: "It's likely that all or most of the easyJet routes from the International were profitable, but the question is their relative profit compared to other routes.

"When easyJet does begin to operate again, what priority will they give to re-establishing the Belfast operation? I suspect it wouldn't be near the top."

An easyJet spokeswoman said: "We will start flying again once it is deemed safe to do so and restrictions are lifted. We're monitoring the situation closely but currently its too early to say what specific flights will return when as it completely depends on the restrictions."

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Question: Esmond Birnie

Question: Esmond Birnie

Nigel McDowell/Ulster University

Question: Esmond Birnie

Dr Birnie said that by the time airlines take to the skies again, the face of aviation will be radically different. "It's very likely the government will temporarily or permanently remove Air Passenger Duty (which costs £14 for each leg of a domestic flight). From the route viability point of view, that will help.

"Abolishing APD would cost £3bn, which is expensive, but you have to put that relative to all the other schemes to protect the economy following the pandemic."

Future government intervention could also mean cash injections or outright nationalisation of airlines, he said.

"If that happens, there would be some sort of obligation in terms of geographic coverage - it's an uncertain picture," he added.

"It's reasonable to have some degree of concern of the longer-term picture but in three to six months time we could be looking at a very different civil aviation picture."

Meanwhile, hundreds of staff at Dublin-based Stobart Air have now been let go, with just a few dozen essential roles retained to provide minimum flying, administrative and maintenance duties.

The airline operates the Aer Lingus Regional service, which is all but grounded. Stobart Air has kept operating public service obligation (PSO) routes from Dublin to Kerry and Donegal, giving it a bare revenue stream of EU funds despite the flights almost certainly flying with few or no passengers.

Managing director Andy Jolly wrote to staff over the weekend, telling them that the company is also unable to bankroll a government scheme where the Republic's Exchequer will fund 70% of staff members' pay if an employer retains the workers. That sees employers refunded by the Revenue within a couple of days of paying staff. A similar scheme in the UK funds 80% of staff's pay.

Mr Jolly told staff that he had made every effort to avoid the layoffs. In a statement, Stobart Air said that it remains committed to resuming its services once the pandemic has ended.

"Around 16% of our staff will be retained to operate our PSO services and to allow us to work toward the recommencement of services as soon as it is advised and as demand returns when Government travel restrictions are lifted," the airline said.

It added: "We are very mindful of the impact these measures have on our team, who have shown immense professionalism and forbearance at this time."

The difficulties at Stobart Air are likely to pile pressure on the UK-listed Stobart Group, which is on the hook for tens of millions of dollars of guarantees linked to Stobart Air aircraft leases.

While it's been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, Stobart Air's issues also stem from issues at Connect Airways. It is 30%-owned by the Stobart Group.

Virgin Travel Group, a subsidiary of Virgin Atlantic, also has a 30% stake, while US firm Cyrus Equity Partners owns 40%. Connect was formed last year to acquire UK regional airline Flybe, which collapsed into administration last month.

Belfast Telegraph