RYANAIR will axe Aer Lingus's operation in Belfast if it succeeds in a takeover of its rival Dublin carrier.
The budget airline revealed yesterday that its intentions would be to move Aer Lingus's main European base to Brussels and shut operations at Gatwick and Belfast if the £550 million acquisition goes through next year, as some aviation analysts predict.
Although the deal is by no means a certainty, Ryanair's stated intentions will come as a major blow to Aer Lingus, which is transferring from Belfast International to the George Best City Airport later this month.
The European competition commissioner is reviewing Ryanair's bid for Aer Lingus, whose bosses insist is "not credible".
"The way get across the line is by cutting a number of Aer Lingus routes, cutting a certain amount of Ryanair routes and then refocus Aer Lingus," a Ryanair spokesman said yesterday.
"Instead of having a Belfast base and a Gatwick base, they should have a Brussels base instead."
Sources say Ryanair is likely to maintain the Aer Lingus brand, but reposition it between Ryanair and easyJet, cutting fares on short-haul routes and revamping business class on long haul.
Ryanair has twice been stymied in its attempts to take control of the Dublin flag carrier.
This time the European Commission is in the second phase of its investigation after issuing a preliminary statement saying: "On a large number of European routes, mainly out of Ireland, the two airlines are each other's closest competitors and barriers to entry appear to be high.
"The takeover could therefore lead to the elimination of competition on a large number of these routes."
Meanwhile, The Irish News understands that Ryanair is in talks with Belfast International about opening a number of routes to Eastern Europe.
It would mark a return to the Northern Ireland market for the budget carrier, which pulled out of Belfast City in September 2010 after three years of operation.
A spokesman for Belfast International would only say the airport has been talking to a number of airlines. '
■ TAKEOVER BID: Ryanair and Aer Lingus planes prepare for take-off