EasyJet offers up a post-Brexit commitment to Belfast as airline carries 50 millionth passenger
LOW-cost airline easyJet says it remains "fully committed" to adding future capacity from Belfast International Airport - despite the challenges it is likely to face post-Brexit, when current EU "open sky" arrangements may be ripped to pieces
And the carrier insisted it "won't be bullied" by rivals attempting to muscle in on its territory and eat into its market share on certain routes from Aldergrove.
EasyJet's UK commercial manager Ali Gayward was speaking to the Irish News as the airline celebrated carrying its 50 millionth passenger from Belfast International, where it launched services in 1998 with a single route to London Luton.
Today, as Europe's leading airline, it runs 91 flights a week to London airports as part of a network of 28 destinations from Belfast, including a new service to Dubrovnik launching on May 14.
"We expect to carry 4.4 million passengers through Belfast International in 2017, maintaining our unbroken growth in numbers year on year since our inaugural flight 19 years ago," she said.
"That represents a major contribution to the Northern Ireland economy by a company that is committed to this place, one that doesn't just come and go," Ms Gayward added.
She said: “I'm really excited that we have flown our 50 millionth passenger from Belfast today. That's the equivalent of the entire population of Northern Ireland - every man, woman and child - flying with easyJet 27 times each."
Ms Gayward revealed that easyJet - which is due to publish its half-year results in a fortnight's time - would continue to invest in route development from Northern Ireland, though was unable to indicate what potential new destinations were on the horizon.
“We have added 155,000 summer seats from Belfast to London, Malaga, Alicante, Faro, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Palma, Ibiza and Split, which will taking the total number of easyJet seats available between now and October to over three million for the first time.
"And this allows us to continue to provide affordable, convenient connections for our customers whether they're travelling on business or leisure.”
Ms Gayward admitted huge challenges remain for the company in the lead-up to the UK's departure from the EU, but said easyJet was working towards a seamless transition - "which is critical in a market like Northern Ireland".
It is understood easyJet is establishing an EU operating company – on which an announcement is expected within weeks – so that it can obtain an EU air operating certificate. The company insists, however, it will continue to be headquartered in the UK.
It is currently 84 per cent-owned by EU nationals, but this will drop to 49 per cent after Brexit, provided the shares of its founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou – who has dual UK and Cypriot nationality – are classed as EU-owned.
The airline celebrated the 50 million Belfast milestone by giving the lucky passenger, Isabel Patterson, a pair of complimentary flights
Uel Hoey, the airport's business development director, said: "This is a mind-blowing milestone for easyJet today, placed in the context of Northern Ireland's population of two million people.
“Put simply, easyJet implemented a social and economic revolution in Northern Ireland in 1998 through the introduction of generally available, affordable air fares and have become an intrinsic part of our society over the past two decades."