'˜At least three' airlines in talks over US air route

At least three airlines are in discussions with Belfast International Airport about a new air route to the United States it has been claimed as Northern Ireland's only current scheduled service ends.

Monday, 9th January 2017, 6:20 pm
Updated Monday, 9th January 2017, 6:22 pm
The departure of United from BIA is a blow but the airport expects to handle record passenger numbers this year

The negotiations follow the end of Northern Ireland’s only daily direct flight to the US with US carrier United Airlines which made its final departure from Belfast International Airport on Mondaywith 150 passengers on board.

The flight departed 50 minutes behind schedule following a delay in the earlier arrival of the final inward flight from New York to Belfast.

It is understood that negotiations are ongoing with at least three other airlines to open a direct transatlantic route. Low-cost carrier Norwegian Air is believed to be one of the airlines involved in discussions.

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A spokeswoman for Belfast International Airport said: “We are in discussions with a number of airlines to replace the route.”

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said he continues to work closely with the International Airport to explore other possible air routes to North America.

“I am pleased that we have been working together on some options. I also intend to announce the establishment of a new Air Routes Task Force in the coming weeks and that will help us to identify key routes that Northern Ireland’s airports should be targeting and suggesting possible policy interventions and initiatives to attract airlines.”

BIA managing director, Graham Keddie said the management team was working closely with government to deliver a major long-haul project that would “open up attractive additional and badly needed connections”.

The US airline announced last year it would stop its service citing the route’s poor financial performance.

A £9 million rescue deal agreed by Stormont and the airline fell through because the financial package breached EU state rules.

The route between Belfast International Airport and Newark first began in 2005, operated by Continental Airlines.

United took over the operation of the route in 2012 following a merger between it and Continental Airlines.

Speaking as the last United Airlines flight departed, Mr Keddie acknowledged the carrier’s departure was a “big loss for the Northern Ireland access to the US market”.

“Over one million people used the service in the eleven-and-a-half years it has been operating.

“We see there is a definite market here. It is disappointing United is leaving,” said Mr Keddie.

The last flight coincides with the news that Belfast International is now the fifth busiest in the UK for domestic travel behind Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Passenger growth rates increased by 17.2% last year, with 5.15 million passengers.

This year, passenger numbers are expected to be in the region of 5.4 million.