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They're coming home for Christmas

By Robin Morton

Airlines and ferry companies were today braced for their busiest weekend of the year as Northern Ireland expatriates head home for Christmas.

Tens of thousands of Ulster people are on the way back for much anticipated reunions with friends and family in the province.

Belfast International and George Best Belfast City Airports were both fully geared up, with extra staff on hand to cope with the influx.

The ferry ports of Belfast and Larne were also busy with many of the sailings over the weekend fully booked for weeks.

Airports and ferry terminals all urged passengers to allow extra time for their journeys in order to reduce congestion.

Most of the expats are coming from Britain and the Republic, but many were using the range of direct services from the continent and North America.

A spokesman for Belfast International said they expected to handle more than 80,000 passengers over the next seven days.

This will bring the total for the year to around 5.25 million passengers, a significant increase on last year's record of five million.

EasyJet, the biggest carrier using Belfast International, said it expected to carry a million passengers over the same period.

A spokesman said that London to Belfast and Scotland to Belfast would be among its most popular domestic routes during the festive season.

At Belfast City, traffic has been boosted by the arrival in October of Ryanair, which operates four routes to Britain.

The airline said its Christmas holiday traffic was 20% up year on year, and that the Belfast routes had played a part in that success.

Spokesman Peter Sherrard said: "Ryanair will operate more flights than Rudolph this Christmas, and we will be carrying more than two million passengers over Christmas and the New Year."

Stena Line said it was experiencing another very busy Christmas booking period, with many sailings on its Irish Sea routes already at full capacity.

The company said that between today and January 4 it expected to carry more than 120,000 passengers and 34,000 cars on its five Irish Sea routes.

Of that total, some 56,000 passengers and 16,000 cars will be carried on what Stena calls its "northern corridor", including the Belfast to Stranraer service.

Stena Line marketing manager Ian Baillie said: "Bookings have been coming in thick and fast and many sailings are already full.

"The phones in our call centres have been ringing off the hook with people looking to travel over Christmas and the New Year."

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