Ryanair back in Belfast and planning at least six new routes
BUDGET Irish carrier Ryanair will unveil plans on Thursday to return to Belfast with several new domestic and European routes in the pipeline.
The airline will initially fly to London Gatwick from Belfast International Airport from the end of March.
And it is understood it is considering at least six other destinations from the airport - potentially to sun and leisure destinations not currently served from the north.
The move will also represent one of the biggest jobs announcements in Northern Ireland for some time, with several hundred positions anticipated as part of the multi-million pound expansion.
It is thought Ryanair will target other business and European sun routes over the coming months.
The airline already flies to Faro in Portugal and Alicante in Spain from City of Derry Airport.
Among the most sought after new routes for the north is a direct link with key economic and tourism destination Germany where Ryanair operates from 10 airports including Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg.
The Gatwick slots became available after Aer Lingus announced it was pulling its connection to the airport from Belfast City in March.
Ryanair will compete with easyJet which already flies between Aldergrove and Gatwick.
Addressing Dublin Chamber last month, Ryanair's flamboyant chief executive Michael O'Leary said the airline would operate a "high frequency" from Belfast should it secure the Gatwick service.
It will make the Belfast to Gatwick route the busiest air service from from Northern Ireland.
Ryanair operated from George Best Belfast City Airport from 2007 until 2010 when it axed services, blaming delays in approving a runway extension.
It has understood to have been in talks with Aldergrove authorities on an on and off basis since 2012 but stepped up efforts following the opening up of the Gatwick route.
A spokesman for the Belfast International Airport said it was "not policy to comment on speculation".
When it previously operated from Belfast, Ryanair operated domestic flights to destinations such London Stansted, Liverpool, East Midlands, Bristol and Glasgow Prestwick airports.
Mr O'Leary had pledged to launch a series of European routes once a proposed 600-metre runway extension was given the green light.
However, he pulled the plug accusing planning authorities and politicians of "dithering" after the Planning Appeals Commission refused to set a date for a public inquiry.
"If Belfast doesn't want us and the authorities up here don't recognise that Ryanair wants to invest in Belfast, then to hell with you," he said at the time.
Ryanair already flies from City of Derry Airport where it operates to several destinations including domestic routes to London Stansted, Glasgow and Liverpool.