The outlook for Belfast International airport's long-haul business looked bleak at the start of this year when United Airlines scrapped its Newark service – the Northern Ireland gateway's only transatlantic route.
An attempt to save the route last year via a financial incentive package provided by Northern Ireland's government failed after the incentive programme was deemed to have constituted illegal state aid by European regulators. The US airline pulled out in January.
Belfast faced the prospect of being cut off from direct links with North America, but the decision by Norwegian to begin services to Providence and Stewart airports in the USA using the Boeing 737 Max from July now offers the capital city a reprieve.
Airport managing director Graham Keddie says the new services will not only open up new markets for Belfast, but also hold the prospect of rekindling other lost routes, such as services to Toronto.
"The Max opens up thin routes on the transatlantic market, it would be great to get the Toronto route back," he tells FlightGlobal, ahead of the Routes Europe event in Belfast, which begins on 23 April.
Belfast International lost its link to the Canadian city in 2009 with the collapse of Flyglobespan, and Keddie says replacing that service represents the "holy grail" for the gateway.
"In 2009-2010, Belfast and Dublin had an equal number of flights to Canada until the economic crisis in 2008 and we are working hard to get that back," he says.
Keddie says Norwegian's new US routes will serve a different market to the one vacated by United and adds that sales of the new flights have so far proved to be "very strong".
Independent air transport consultant John Strickland from JLS Consulting says the new Norwegian services will target a different segment from the one previously offered to Newark by United. He says the Scandinavian carrier will be focused on the point-to-point market, rather than transit travellers, and its pricing strategy will reflect that.
With the addition of Norwegian, Belfast now has four major European budget carriers on its books, with EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz already offering services.
FlightGlobal schedules data shows that EasyJet is by far the largest carrier at Belfast International, with an almost 77% share of available seat capacity in April, while Ryanair is the next largest carrier, with just over 16%.
Ryanair's decision to open a new base at Belfast International in March 2016 marked its return to a market it had not served since 2010. The Irish carrier previously served Belfast City airport until pulling out, citing the decision to delay a runway extension project.
Ryanair initially started with seven routes to Alicante, Berlin, Krakow, Lanzarote, Malaga, Bergamo's Orio al Serio, near Milan, and Tenerife, and – using slots released by IAG for domestic services – to London Gatwick. This winter the carrier is increasing that to 12 routes.
Keddie says the airline is "growing very quickly" at Belfast but adds that EasyJet remains the airport's largest carrier "by a long way".
Ryanair and EasyJet are competing with one another on services from London Gatwick to Belfast International and Keddie says the route has now become the UK's busiest domestic route.
Elsewhere, the UK carrier is unopposed in linking Belfast with a variety of UK destinations including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol and Manchester, FlightGlobal data shows.
Belfast International recorded a 17% rise in passenger numbers in 2016 to 5.15 million and Keddie says domestic passenger numbers grew at 19%.
This year Keddie predicts passenger numbers will grow by around 9% to 5.6 million and adds that the double-digit growth seen recently will ultimately "slow down".
At Belfast City airport, the capital's downtown hub, passenger numbers were down slightly at 2.67 million in 2016, a result, says Katy Best, the gateway’s commercial and marketing director, of Aer Lingus ending its Belfast City-London Gatwick service when it had to surrender the slots to Ryanair to assuage competition concerns after it became part of IAG.
Despite this, Best says Belfast City has built up a good portfolio of "blue chip" carriers that includes KLM, which operates a daily service to Amsterdam Schiphol airport, and British Airways, which offers services to London Heathrow.
Indeed, the airport has nine daily services to the London gateway.
Best says Belfast City "works closely" with its largest airline partner, Flybe, which provides a range of UK domestic destinations including to Liverpool, Birmingham and Southampton. Eastern Airways also operates from the gateway.
While hub connectivity is “important”, Best says the airport is also seeking to supplement its leisure network with new routes. FlightGlobal schedules shows that Aer Lingus operates flights to Spanish sun destinations such as Malaga, Alicante and Palma de Majorca.
Icelandair, through its regional subsidiary, Air Iceland, will provide a link to Reykjavik from Belfast City from June. Eastern Airways has stepped in to provide services between the city airport and the Isle of Man after the demise of Citywing.
Meanwhile, Belfast City is preparing for new owners following 3i Group's purchase of the gateway from EISER Global Infrastructure Fund in December 2016. Best says she expects the acquisition should be completed within the next month or two and after that the airport's management will find out more about the London-based private equity group's plans for the gateway.
BREXIT AND APD
While the impact of Brexit on border controls into Northern Ireland is still unclear, Belfast International’s Keddie says that so far, the UK vote to exit the EU has had a positive impact on the airport.
He says the weakening of sterling against the euro following the referendum has been "very attractive to inbound travellers from the south coming up over the border to use us to fly, particularly from the border counties such as Donegal and Monaghan as it's an hour’s drive so very much closer than Dublin".
While this is welcome, Keddie says the currency attraction cannot completely outweigh the "high drag" factor of the UK’s air passenger duty (APD).
He points out that the tax has a detrimental effect by encouraging people in Northern Ireland to fly out of Dublin airport, where there is currently no passenger tax.
Passengers in Northern Ireland are already exempted from paying APD on long-haul routes, but Keddie says efforts to have the tax rescinded completely are being hampered by the country's current political crisis, which has left it without a functioning government for a number of weeks.
Despite this, Keddie says: "I won’t shut up about it, and I imagine [Belfast] City airport feels the same way".
Strickland describes the Northern Ireland tourism market as very "traditional", with an inclination for holidays in "tried and tested" locations such as Spain and the Mediterranean, but also increasingly to places in the USA such as Florida. "If the fall in the pound makes those places more expensive, we will have to see how that impacts demand," he adds.
Best is also staying positive about the impact of Brexit, pointing out that as long as some form of open-skies arrangement is put in place, the airport will continue to have opportunities to open up new city pairs and business-focused routes across Europe.
Source: Cirium Dashboard