Ian Sheppard/LONDON

Brussels-based low-cost carrier Virgin Express will this month apply for a Republic of Ireland air operator's certificate (AOC). This will see the airline establish a new base in Ireland at a fraction of the cost of operating from Belgium.

The airline says it has no intention of moving completely to Ireland, but European Commission rules allow it to put "any new aircraft and crews on the Irish AOC".

It hopes to have approval by November and will decide whether to operate from Cork, Dublin or Shannon later this month.

The airline, which will retain its headquarters and main operating base in Brussels, says it has encountered difficulties in recruiting flightdeck and cabin crew in Belgium because taxes take 60% of gross salaries, and sales tax is 22%.

High social costs of employment in Belgium have already seen flag carrier Sabena try to move part of its operation out of the country.

Virgin Express says Dublin is preferable for the new base, but the airport's operator, Aer Rianta, is not offering incentives to move because it is already "saturated". The airline is aiming to add six Irish-registered aircraft by April 1999.

Meanwhile, Virgin Express says that plans to buy Sabre Airways for the new Virgin Sun operation have been dropped after the UK charter airline pulled out of negotiations. Sabre will not now operate Boeing 737-300s on Virgin Express' behalf from UK airports as agreed.

An agreement does still stand, however, that will see Gatwick-based Sabre operate its two soon-to-be-delivered 737-800s for Virgin Holidays next year under the Virgin Sun brand when the new operation launches services from Gatwick and Manchester.

Source: Flight International