Belfast City Airport waves goodbye to Ryanair … for now?

Belfast City Airport frontage

Belfast City Airport will be hoping for better luck in September. Having run a couple of Community Information Days last week that were advertised to 21,000 local homes but only ended up attracting 42 people into the airport terminal to learn more about the airport’s activities and plans for the runway extension, Ryanair broke bad news this morning.

Ryanair don’t do subtle gestures, and in the case of the city airport they’re pulling their aircraft off the local tarmac from 1 November, ceasing the routes to Bristol, East Midlands, Liverpool, London Stansted and Prestwick from 31 October.

At this morning’s press conference in the Europa Hotel, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said:

It is very disappointing that the promised runway extension at Belfast City Airport has still not materialised more than three years after we opened the base at Belfast City.

It makes no sense for Ryanair to continue to invest in Belfast City, operating restricted routes with less than full payloads between Belfast and other UK airports (which suffer a double APD penalty) unless there is clear and immediate prospect of Ryanair being enabled to safely operate longer European routes from Belfast City Airport and for this we need the runway extension.

The journey towards a public inquiry looking at the proposed runway extension has been a long drawn out process, that was delayed again in August.

It’s unlikely that O’Leary’s intervention will speed up the process. More likely it’ll encourage easyJet to continue their bargaining between Belfast International and Belfast City airports and perhaps shift more flights down from Aldergrove to the harbour.

The airport’s Business Development Director, Katy Best said she was disappointed at Ryanair’s decision. However:

Ryanair’s announcement will not divert us in pursuing the continued development of the airport. Our goal still remains to attract new airlines and new destinations to and from Belfast City Airport resulting in a much needed economic boost for the region.

The extension would add 590 metres to the Holywood end of the runway would allow the existing aircraft to fly fully laden with passengers and fuel, offering destinations further afield in mainland Europe. The physical layout of the current airport site means that the longer runway wouldn’t attract larger aircraft. The City Airport’s current planning constraint means it can operate no more than 48,000 flights each year. Last year they managed 39,328 flights carrying 2.60 million passengers; in 2008 they peaked at 42,998 flights for 2.56 million people.

While community and campaign groups like Belfast City Airport Watch Ltd have voiced concerns and actively fought against the extension, their demands seem to stop short of requesting a radical cutback in the airport’s operations – eg, halving the current flight limit. Perhaps the local jobs at stake make that an ask too far?

Sinn Féin’s local East Belfast representative Niall Ó Donnghaile commented:

While I’m sure many residents will not be mourning the apparent loss of Ryanair, I think this move by Michael O’Leary is an extremely retrograde step and will only punish Ryanair workers as well as the local economy and air travel commuters.

Dawn Purvis MLA reacted to Ryanair’s announcement:

While it is regrettable, it is not surprising, Mr O’Leary has long made his views known regarding the democratic right of the people of East Belfast to lodge their objections and lobby their elected representatives against a runway extension which would add to the already nuisance levels of noise and other forms of pollution. Mr O’Leary probably needs reminded that we live in a democratic country not a fascist state where profit is more important than the health and well being of its citizens.

My major concern in all of this is that Mr O’Leary’s ‘hissy fit’ does not cost jobs, I hope he has the decency to ensure that these employees can be redeployed elsewhere within Ryan Air operations.

Update – In July, Ryanair announced a three-month suspension of flights from Bournemouth airport between 1 November 2010 and 31 January 2011, citing the government’s £11 tourist tax. Are the effects of the economic downturn being used to make a different political point in each region affected? Other quotes from politicians, organisations and community representatives can be found on the BBC’s round-up page.