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Flights will resume at some point, but industry insiders unsure how long it will take


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Belfast International Airport has lost all passenger flights due to the Covid-19 outbreak

Belfast International Airport has lost all passenger flights due to the Covid-19 outbreak

Belfast International Airport has lost all passenger flights due to the Covid-19 outbreak

Turbulence is rarely off the in-flight menu for Northern Ireland's three airports - and now Covid-19, the worst crisis for the industry in many years, has hit hard.

Funding of £5.7m for City of Derry Airport and Belfast City Airport keeps both of them open for now, serving the critical Belfast to London and Londonderry to London routes.

But it only addresses a fraction of the difficulties facing Belfast City, which lost 14 routes from the collapse of regional airline Flybe.

Three of those were quickly backfilled only for Covid-19 to put paid to all flights from Belfast City apart from links to London.

Since the Covid-19 crisis it has also lost British Airways after the UK carrier withdrew its Heathrow link for the time being, though it is being served by sister airline Aer Lingus. The airlines have also acted quickly to cut costs, with 12,000 jobs to be cut at British Airways and 3,000 roles expected to go at Ryanair.

Covid-19 has also resulted in the loss of all passenger flights from Belfast International, though its boss Graham Keddie said he was hopeful that it too will receive a government bailout in due course.

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Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Belfast City Airport had 2.51 million passengers during 2018, City of Derry Airport had 185,843 and the International Airport had 6.27m.

The International has suffered past problems with getting passengers through security, as well as the loss of a link with North America in November 2018.

City of Derry Airport is heavily subsidised by its owner Derry City and Strabane District Council and has struggled with falling passenger numbers.

Economist Andrew Webb of business advisers Grant Thornton said he believed long-term damage has been inflicted on our air connectivity by Covid-19.

This week speculation about the future of flying predicted four-hour waits for boarding to enable health checks to be carried out - and more expensive tickets to make up for social distancing measures which may mean only 50% of seats can be occupied.

Mr Webb said: "A lot is going to depend on how we behave as consumers. Will there be a reticence to go through four hours of waiting and then sitting on a plane worrying about picking up Covid-19? It will probably take an absolute age to recover that air connectivity. I can't see how we can just turn back on immediately that desire to travel.

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Brian Ambrose

Brian Ambrose

Brian Ambrose

"A lack of confidence may lead to a lack of demand and a scaling back of routes as carriers react."

Economy Minister Diane Dodds said the three airports had an essential role to play "not only during this crisis, but also when we emerge from it", and repeated a call for a holiday from APD to help aviation weather the crisis.

EasyJet, the main carrier from Belfast International, said there was no certainty of a date for restarting commercial flights as it would depend on national travel restrictions and customer demand. But it said it was working to ensure it could meet requirements for crew training and any extra health and safety measures.

Gareth Hetherington, economist and director of the Ulster University economic policy centre said the industry was facing turmoil. "We need to prepare ourselves to pay more for air travel," he warned.

Mr Keddie welcomed the support announced yesterday but with a caveat.

"It's fantastic they've done this but I would ask, when our carriers restart will they get the same support?" he said.

Explaining he is engaged in talks with the airport's airlines, he said: "I'm relatively confident they'll all come back but it depends on how long it takes. That time scale is a moveable feast."

Domestic routes would return before overseas routes - but the ball was also in the public's court, he said.

He added: "Confidence will be a big thing. Are people going stir-crazy at the minute, and will they want to travel when this is over? It's a big question. I think the Government will have to get rid of APD to help us and stimulate that process of coming back."

Belfast City chief executive Brian Ambrose said it wasn't possible to gauge how soon activity would return to 2019 levels.

"With regards to new routes and backfilling the Flybe network, we have continued detailed conversations with potential airline partners and expect to make some positive announcements as we emerge from the Covid-19 outbreak in the weeks and months ahead," he added.

And City of Derry Airport said its search for other funding options to secure its future continued.

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