Plans by Aer Lingus to relocate transatlantic services from Shannon to regional airports in the UK have raised hopes of a restored US flight from Belfast International Airport.
Over recent days, details have emerged of efforts by Aer Lingus to off-load two grounded Airbus planes, previously serving Boston and New York from Shannon, to UK regional airports — with Edinburgh and Manchester leading the bidding.
However, it has now emerged that Belfast International Airport is also among the airports in the running as the base for the new services which, Covid restrictions permitting, would likely start in October.
Belfast has been without a daily service to the US since UNITED pulled its New York flight from Aldergrove in 2017.
While neither Aer Lingus nor Belfast international Airport were willing to comment on the bidding process on the record, the local tourism sector is hugely supportive of any rebooting of the transatlantic service. In 2019, tourism figures from North America into Ireland exceeded two million for the first time ever. Today, visitor numbers are effectively zero.
Hotelier Howard Hastings says the lack of an all-Ireland aviation policy is hobbling the local tourism sector as it aims to bounce back in 2021 from the Covid crisis. "There is a Southern policy and a limited policy in Northern Ireland but with an all-island aviation policy, we could make sure there was a regional spread of airline connectivity," he said. "Traditionally, UNITED had trouble getting enough passengers who wanted to fly business-class — in the front of the bus, as it were — but it's possible post-Open that there may be more wealthy golfers from the US keen to fly into Belfast to play Royal Portrush and the other local courses."
The owner of the Europa and Grand Central Hotels, which have been dependent on staycationers for all of their business over the summer, says a resumption of transatlantic flights from Aldergrove would be welcome. "In a post-Brexit world, our economy needs to be forward-looking and connected to as many places as possible."
And Harry Connolly, a Board Member of Tourism Ireland and head of the West Belfast tourism body Fáilte Feirste Thiar says a direct connection to North America would be a game-changer.
“The opportunity to regain direct access to the US market to grow and further establish tourism is to be welcomed," he told belfastmedia.com. "Fáilte Feirste Thiar has developed extensive links with US tourism industry, festivals and cultural organisations and across the Irish diaspora. We look forward to welcoming American visitors once again when it is safe and right to do so. Direct air access from Belfast would be real game chnager”
While the local Executive has rescinded Air Passenger Duty on transatlantic flights, it's not clear whether it would provide additional inducements to the carrier to place its planes at Belfast International Airport. Previous attempts — pre-Brexit — to provide £9m of funding to UNITED to retain its transatlantic service were deemed to be contrary to EU competition laws.