Belfast City Airport's chief executive has said a number of airlines are interested in taking over the routes served by regional carrier Flybe, which collapsed into administration.
Flybe, Europe’s largest regional airline, accounts for 80% of routes out of the airport, with 14 UK destinations. Its collapse leaves the airport serving just four other destinations.
The airline announced in the early hours of Thursday it had ceased trading with immediate effect and that administrators had been appointed. Crisis talks were held throughout Wednesday to try to secure a rescue package, but no deal was agreed.
Belfast City Airport chief executive Brian Ambrose said it was "a difficult day" for staff.
"We were talking to a number of staff last night after they came off shift and they said they're going home to let their families know they've lost their jobs - so for the Flybe staff who are wonderful people and for the customers who rely on the service, it's a difficult time," he said.
"What I want to relay is that we're confident we will rebuild that network, two-thirds of a passengers are dependent on Flybe, they've been in difficulty for a while and we've been working to try and support them but in parallel, we've been looking at alternatives.
"In the last 24 hours we've had interest in all of our route network, for some of the larger routes we've had interest from multiple airlines so I'm confident within the next days and weeks we'll be announcing backfill on a number of those routes. It's just a matter of how quickly airlines can get aircraft available," he said.
Belfast City Airport has been through this process before, he said.
We're confident we'll build the business back to where it was.Brian Ambrose
"When BMI failed they were 40% of our business so this is significant but any business works if there's a demand for their product. The feedback we've been getting since we made the investment in the last 18 months from our customers is that they absolutely love the product we have here. The airlines [...] they believe there's a market here to be served.
"We're confident we'll build the business back to where it was at about two and a half million passengers but we see prospects beyond that."
The Economy Minister Diane Dodds said she deeply regretted the collapse of the airline.
"In January, the UK Government announced that it had reached an agreement with the shareholders of Flybe, who had agreed to put more money into the business, on the basis that there will be reviews into both Air Passenger Duty and Regional Air Connectivity," she said.
Almost the entire population of NI travel through Flybe routes at Belfast City Airport.Gavin Robinson MP
"These are being led by the Treasury and the Department for Transport (DfT) respectively. I am deeply disappointed that this agreement has not been able to secure the survival of the company," she said.
She said her department will be working closely with the Department for Transport in London to assist with the repatriation of Northern Ireland passengers.
The East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said the public demand is there for flights from Belfast.
"Almost the entire population of NI travel through Flybe routes at Belfast City Airport on an annual basis so there is an attractiveness to other airlines," he said.
"The government has been engaged in a regional connectivity strategy and I'll be saying very clearly in Parliament today that this is a huge test for government, they can't sit back on air passenger duty and regional connectivity and have issues like this arise with Flybe and do nothing."
Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald said it was a sad and difficult time for workers and a "huge blow" to the economy.
"My thoughts are with Flybe workers and their families today who will be left devastated and plunged into uncertainty about what the future holds for them," she said.
Ulster Unionist MLA for East Belfast Andy Allen said it was important the Executive stepped in.
"Now that devolution has been restored, it's important that local departments work together to do everything possible to support those workers who have lost their jobs," he said.
"On top of uncertainty over Boris Johnson’s Irish Sea Border we need to send a strong signal to the airline industry of the importance of the UK internal market - now is the time for the Chancellor to scrap Air Passenger Duty."
John Stewart MLA, Ulster Unionist Economy spokesperson, called on the Westminster government to preserve as many routes as possible, especially those travelling to London airports.
The Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said he would work with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to help restore the "key routes".
Very sad to hear about @FlyBe - understand the impact this will have on staff & recognise the importance of those key routes for Belfast and wider connectivity in Northern Ireland. I will be working urgently with @grantshapps, industry & the Executive to help all those affected. https://t.co/gctfvELM2Z— Brandon Lewis #StayHomeSaveLives (@BrandonLewis) March 5, 2020
All Flybe flights and those operated by sister airline Stobart Air have been cancelled, the Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement. Flybe was bought by a consortium of Virgin Atlantic, Stobart Group and Cyrus Capital in February 2019, after running into earlier financial problems.
In a statement, Flybe chief executive Mark Anderson said the company had made “every possible attempt” to avoid collapse but had been “unable to overcome significant funding challenges”.
“The UK has lost one of its greatest regional assets,” Mr Anderson said.
“Flybe has been a key part of the UK aviation industry for four decades, connecting regional communities, people and businesses across the entire nation.
“I thank all our partners and the communities we have been privileged to serve. Above all I would like to thank the Flybe team for their incredible commitment and dedication.”
This is a very clear reason why Air Passenger Duty needs to be scrapped immediately.Colin Neill
Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said the collapse will have a "hugely negative" impact on Northern Ireland’s air connectivity.
The company said all Flybe flights were immediately grounded and advised all passengers not to travel to airports unless alternative flight arrangements had been made.
"I know that the team at Belfast City Airport will work hard to find new airlines for these key routes and Belfast Chamber urges Government at all levels to support them to ensure that our connectivity, which is so important to business and especially tourism in our city, isn’t harmed by the unfortunate collapse of FlyBe," he said.
Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster Colin Neill said there will be a knock-on effect for tourism.
"This sounds alarm for our pubs, restaurants and hotels at a time when Coronavirus is compounding the sector’s problems," he said.
"Great Britain is our largest tourism market and without that regional connectivity, the hospitality sector is going to take a real hammering. Our only hope in the short term is that other carriers can increase capacity so that visitors can come here and not be put off by Flybe’s collapse.
"This is a very clear reason why Air Passenger Duty needs to be scrapped immediately and we call on the Chancellor to wake up to this grave situation and cancel APD in his Budget only a week away."