EasyJet grows Belfast business by 9 per cent - but no new routes planned
EASYJET grew its Northern Ireland business by 9 per cent last year and has described its Belfast hub as "absolutely pivotal" to its UK network.
And while it has refused to commit in the short term to adding to its existing 35 routes from Aldergrove, the company has pledged to strengthen the links it already has - and do more to improve its on-time performance for business and leisure travellers.
"We've performed extremely well operationally, but are taking a deep dive into our processes to ensure we improve even further," said Neil Slaven, easyJet's UK country director, who is tasked with driving the strategic direction and commercial success of the carrier in the UK, which incorporates more than 160 based aircraft, 18 airports and 11 bases.
He was speaking to the Irish News as easyJet - which has had a presence in Northern Ireland for more than 20 years - reported a headline loss before tax of £275 million for the six months to March 31.
Revenue was up 7.3 per cent to £2.34 billion, due to capacity growth and favourable foreign exchange rates.
EasyJet said higher fuel prices (it spent £1.4 billion on fuel last year) and the Gatwick drone incident caused it turbulence in the first half, but added that it is on course to deliver annual profits in line with expectations.
Mr Slaven, who has been with easyJet since 2011 in a variety of roles, said it was "difficult to overstate the importance of Belfast" to the network,and said its frequency to London ensured Northern Ireland continues to enjoy exceptional connectivity.
"The continued improvement of easyJet's performance in Belfast, where we have a 73 per cent market share, underlines just how important we are to the region's economy, providing vital trade links for inward investment.
"We can't confirm details of any new routes right now, but we'll continue to strengthen the ones we've got,and believe we have an ideal mix of destinations for both the business and leisure traveller."
At group level easyJet said growth was held back by the timing of Easter, as well as comparison to last year when Monarch's bankruptcy and Ryanair cancellations benefited the carrier.
Total revenue per seat decreased by 6.3 per cent to £50.71 while costs per seat were also higher, up 3.9 per cent to £56.66. This was down to fuel price increases and underlying cost inflation.
EastJet added that the disruption caused by drones at Gatwick Airport in December led to a £10 million direct loss.
Chief executive Johan Lundgren said: "I'm pleased that despite tougher trading conditions, we flew more than 41 million customers, up 13 per cent on last year, performed well operationally with 54 per cent fewer cancellations in the period and customer satisfaction with our crew is at an all-time high.
"We have also continued to make good progress on our strategic initiatives in holidays, loyalty, business and with data."
The firm expects profits for the 2019 financial year to be in line with expectations.
It comes after the group warned in April that it would make a loss in the first half amid rising costs and greater uncertainty due to Brexit.
Meanwhile latest figures from the CAA show how Belfast International is third in the league table of UK airports for domestic terminal passenger traffic.
It is behind Edinburgh and Heathrow but ahead of the likes of Glasgow, Gatwick, Manchester and Belfast City.
Year-on-year, domestic passenger traffic at Aldergrove grew by 11 per cent to 356,540 while at George Best Belfast City Airport numbers rose 1 per cent to 190,828.
Indeed when the figures for the two Belfast airports are combined, they would rank at number one in the list for UK domestic passengers, well ahead of Edinburgh (457,614) and Heathrow (391,083).
Belfast International Airport's managing director Graham Keddie said: “Holding the number three slot in the UK league table is no mean achievement ad shows we are the premier airport for cost-conscious business passengers from Northern Ireland.
"It is an endorsement of the flight schedule operated by our airlines with up to 100 return flights a-day to ten GB airports including Gatwick, Liverpool, Stansted and London Luton. Our load factors on main domestic routes are very strong, and we foresee that continuing.
“Our passenger numbers last year (6.3 million) were an all-time record and we expect to see that performance surpassed this year by as much as 200,000. As we grow, so too do we see investment and employment growing to cater for ever-increasing passenger numbers."
Mr Keddie reiterated his believe that it the burden of air passenger duty was removed, the airport's contribution to the Northern Ireland economy would be significantly greater.
"We will continue to lobby government to remove this unfair tax - £26 per passenger on return short haul flights - which places us at an enormous disadvantage when it comes to competing with airports in the Republic.”