Northern Ireland travel firm scores with football fans over extra flights to France
A Northern Ireland travel company will be flying more members of the Green and White Army to France this weekend for their first Euros knock-out match against Wales.
Peter McMinn, managing director of Travel Solutions, said he had already flown out more than 2,500 fans, mostly on day trips to the first round games against Poland and Ukraine - as well as Tuesday's nail-biting crunch match against Germany.
Those numbers included an entourage of 35 pupils from Ashfield Boys' School in east Belfast who took off last Friday for the 'school' trip of a lifetime to the Euros.
Mr McMinn said he was now in a race against time to secure aircraft to fly up to 400 fans to Paris for the side's first game in the knockout stages against Wales on Saturday.
The company deals directly with airlines and brokers to secure aircraft.
"We have existing relationships with a number of airlines, but we also have to go out into the market to secure other aircraft," Mr McMinn said.
So far he has chartered planes from Thomas Cook Scandinavia, Germania, Small Planet Airlines in Luthuania and Luxair.
He said he tried to offer fans good value, with day tickets for round one matches costing around £369 return. "I offered some fans the chance at the start to get tickets for last 16 matches at the same price if they paid deposits," he explained.
"They were the fans who put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, and it's paid off for those 160.
"We are certainly getting an awful lot of interest from supporters, including those who have already been to the other three games."
Plans being made yesterday were complicated by the fact that the fans' - and team's - weekend destination, and the day on which the match was to be played, would not be known until the group games were finished last night.
"Not finding out until then does present huge operational headaches for us, as does not knowing what day they'll be playing," Mr McMinn told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.
"The problem is getting aircraft at short notice and the fact that this weekend is also the start of the summer holidays."
The company has so far made use of 10 different aircraft on its journey, including two wide-bodied craft. And Mr McMinn said the team's success had been a massive business boon.
"It's been great for us as a company and hopefully we can meet demand for this weekend," he added. "I think we will be getting enough aircraft to fly between 200 and 400 fans.
"If we're able to secure two or three aircraft at short notice, we'll be doing well."
Mr McMinn said Travel Solutions staff were glued to their phones as they dealt with calls from fans. "They are just knuckling down and doing their stuff," he explained. "We just don't want to let people down."
Around 40,000 fans from Northern Ireland are thought to have travelled to France for the first-round matches, most taking annual leave from their jobs.
Nigel Smyth, regional director of the CBI, said: "It's great for local fans to be out in France supporting the Northern Ireland team. Employers will seek to be flexible around holiday arrangements, where this is feasible, to ensure fans can get to participate in these memorable events."