Belfast Telegraph

Jet2 chief executive says air carrier will consider switching to the Belfast-made A220 for next order

By Margaret Canning in Seattle

The head of Jet2.com, one of the biggest airlines operating out of Northern Ireland, has said it would consider buying A220s from Airbus in future even though it currently has a Boeing fleet.

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Chief executive Steve Heapy spoke in the US as the leisure and holiday airline took possession of its latest Boeing NG (next generation) 737-800 at the aerospace giant's factory in Seattle. 

It's the last of 34 NGs ordered by Jet2.com and brings the fleet operated by the airline and its package holiday arm Jet2 Holidays to 100, including some leased planes from European manufacturer Airbus.

The airline flies to 29 holiday destinations from Belfast International Airport, where it has two 737-800s and two 737-300s. It has a total of 10,000 staff in the UK and 2,000 based in the rest of the EU.

Mr Heapy said the bumper Boeing order for the 189-seater planes was a result of the need to retire older 737-300s and for it to fulfil aspirations for growth, including the expansion of new Stansted and Birmingham bases.

The NG is capable of flying for 3,000 nautical miles - up to 900 more than earlier 737s - and has been described as more comfortable and fuel efficient than competitors. Airbus is now the majority owner of the A220, which used to be known as the Bombardier C Series, the wings of which are made in Belfast.

Mr Heapy said it would be talking to Boeing and Airbus as more planes are retired over the next few years. "We have growth aspirations so it may be that in addition to buying new mid-life aircraft out in the market, we may consider a new aircraft order," he added.

But he explained negotiations were lengthy and took place some time in advance of when the planes would be required. 

"The two big manufacturers have quite a long and healthy pipeline of future orders so you have to pretty much wait until they have a space," he said.  

"There's very good aircraft out there and Airbus do have very good products. Boeing and Airbus products have very good strengths so we have to look at both to see which suited our needs better. We're open-minded.

"The A220 seems a very good aircraft, to be honest, and I think people like it, though there have been some issues with some of the engines. But it's a great aircraft and it's quite economical and roomy. And it's good competition for Boeing. Although we have a Boeing fleet, we have to consider both options when it comes to renewing the fleet."

An order from Jet2.com would be a major boost for Bombardier and the 1,000 staff who work on the manufacture of the wings. But in the meantime, Jet2.com's passenger base is likely to be experiencing the new NG 737-800s.

"We do have a good operation from Belfast covering a range of routes. Most are pretty successful. It's quite a small catchment area and we would like to do more but we try and grow in a responsible way and in accordance with what customers want," Mr Heapy said.

Present plans for future growth across its nine UK bases are mainly focused on "thickening" existing routes. Where popular routes were currently served four to six times a week, the chief executive said he hoped they could add daily flights to many.  

"I think we have got a lot more to do at many of our bases and I think there is a reasonable business case for growth at all nine but where we have seen the biggest growth at Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester. There's more we could do at those. We want to also strengthen our existing bases and make those as strong as we can. In the short term we're not looking at any new bases."

New routes for 2020 have not been confirmed. "We tend to add one or two new routes a year but we haven't decided yet what we will add in summer 2020. We put our core programming first then we plan on the periphery. We have three or four destinations that we are looking at now and we have to decide what to do with 100 aircraft flying 14 times a week," he said.

Mr Heapy spoke as travel body IATA warned that although EU legislation was now in place to enable airlines to keep flying in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the legislation would only allow airlines to fly according to 2018 routes and passenger levels.

That would mean new routes would not apply. Mr Heapy said: "Worse case scenario, that would be true but we have spent a lot of time speaking to government and industry bodies and people in Europe and we're still very hopeful we'll get a resolution.  

"I think with it being a negotiation it will probably be taken up to the deadline as both parties try to extract the maximum they can from the deal.

"It would be extremely damaging for Europe as well as the UK if we have a no-deal. The amount of money which UK leisure travellers spend in the EU every year is £34bn, but EU travellers spend £4bn a year in the UK.  

"But I hope common sense will prevail and trump politics and we get a sensible deal, but there's a lot of positioning at the moment and a lot of people playing hands.  

"The worst thing is that we're not allowed to fly into Europe, but the chance of that is extremely low in very low single digit percentages.

"But the next worst is not to be able to fly to new destinations you didn't have last year and to only be able to repeat last year's capacity. There's quite a low likelihood of that.

"What I think we will end up with will be that we will be still able to fly into Europe but it might be a bit more expensive, with some restrictions." 

He said the company - part of Dart Group plc - had the financial strength to withstand any pressure as a result of Brexit. Dart also includes food distribution company Fowler Welch.

In 2018, Dart reported turnover of £2.39bn - up 38% on 2017.

Mr Heapy concluded: "We have our financial strength and stability. We have a very healthy bank balance and if things don't continue as normal and we have a tough time, we have a lot of cash in the bank and will be able to continue operations for significantly longer than a number of our competitors."

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