Extras gold for Belfast International

Earlier this month, Belfast International was named ‘Best Airport’ at the annual Holiday Extras Customers’ Awards. The ceremony, which was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, recognises the “best in travel”, from charismatic individuals to airport hotels and valet parking.

The UK’s larger airports, such as Heathrow and Edinburgh, were not successful in the Best Airport category, suggesting that size is not necessarily indicative of popularity. Newcastle International claimed the silver award, whilst the “spacious and airy” Robin Hood Airport walked away with a bronze trophy.

Holiday Extras claims that 25,000 people voted in the Customers’ Awards, choosing 36 winners in 12 different categories. Voters picked their favourites from 112 airlines, 28 UK airports and countless other travel firms.

Irish airline Aer Lingus defeated Virgin Atlantic and US giant Continental Airlines to take home the coveted ‘Best Airline’ accolade.

easyJet was crowned the airline with the best value for money, whilst Virgin managed to redeem itself in the ‘Best Airline Cabin Crew’ category, claiming gold.

Other awards included ‘Travel Personality of the Year,’ which was handed to TV presenter Julia Bradbury, the unusual ‘Best Airline for Travelling with Babies’ and ‘Best Hotel Restaurant.’

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Deborah Harris, Belfast International’s PR person, said that the airport was “delighted” with its Holiday Extras trophy and that “this award is in recognition of all the staff that work at the airport and give 110% every day to provide exceptional customer service to all our passengers".

Ryanair and UK flag-carrier British Airways were noticeably absent from the ceremony, as were Stansted Airport and regional hubs Birmingham and Manchester.

Manx2 jumps ship, to Belfast City

Manx2, an airline that hails from Ballasalla on the Isle of Man, is to abandon its base at Belfast International Airport and move immediately next door, to Belfast City, otherwise known as George Best Airport.

Whilst such a minor change of scenery might seem like an enormous waste of time and money, the Manx2 airline claims that the move could “more than double” its business in Northern Ireland, despite City being almost half the size of Belfast International.

Belfast International will lose a flight to Galway and another to the Isle of Man when Manx2 jumps ship at the end of October 2010. Belfast City, on the other hand, will gain those routes lost by its neighbour, as well as a brand new route to Cork.

English airline, Flybe, will also add new routes at Belfast City Airport, to three exotic locations in Europe: Bristol, East Midlands Airport, and Liverpool.

Manx2’s transfer will no doubt come as a relief to City, which was left facing an uncertain future at the end of August, after budget airline, Ryanair, announced plans to withdraw all services from the Irish hub at the end of October.

Ryanair had taken umbrage with plans to delay the expansion of a runway at Belfast City, potentially stifling the development of its business in Ireland. Michael O’Leary, the airline’s owner, said, “We’re going to go, we’re taking the plane, you’ll lose the passengers, you’ll lose the jobs.”

Noel Hayes, chief of Manx2, believes that Belfast City will be more popular with domestic customers. The Irish hub, Noel explains, has faster check-in facilities, and better access to the city centre.

However, Belfast International is still well positioned to compete with its local rival, with more than 20 airlines providing flights to Europe and beyond, including the Irish flag-carrier, Aer Lingus.

MP says drop-off toll may be discriminatory

The recent introduction of drop-off levies at various airports throughout the UK has met with complaints from much of the travelling public.

This week, however, the introduction at Belfast International Airport of a £1 toll for those dropping off or picking up friends or relatives has provoked an accusation by Democratic Unionist Assembly Member, Jonathan Bell, that the charge may in fact be of dubious legality.

His case rests on the grounds of possible discrimination against the elderly, disabled and families with young children who are less able to stick to the 10-minute limit allowed in the new zone. Anyone staying longer than the ten minutes allowed by the levy runs the risk of being clamped and having to pay an £80 fee to have their vehicle released.

Mr Bell said that there could be great risks involved if people started dropping off outside the zone to avoid paying the fee. A public representative has said that he intends writing to the Equality Commission and the Children’s Commission. The airport cites security issues following the Glasgow bombing three years ago as the main driver for the new provisions. It is expected that a staggering £2 million a year will be raised in revenue from the charge, equivalent to one third of the airport’s profits last year.

It transpires, however, that for cash-strapped travellers there is a way round the fee. The Consumer Council has announced that there is a 10-minute grace period in the long-stay car park and has urged motorists to take advantage of this, criticising the airport authorities for not having brought this into the public domain earlier.

Manx2 unveils Galway route

Isle of Man airline, Manx2, has unveiled a new route from Belfast International to the city of Galway in the Republic of Ireland. The airline claims that the connection will help boost commerce and tourism in the two cities, and open up the west of Ireland to the rest of the country.

Despite a week of relative calm in the aviation industry, parts of Ireland are still struggling to cope with the effects of the recent ash crisis. The country was besieged by Eyjafjoll’s lingering ash clouds earlier this month, forcing a nationwide flight ban on the 5th May, and causing significant disruption to the Republic’s airports on the following day.

Whilst the ash clouds have now moved into continental Europe, closing airports in Spain and Portugal, the extent of the damage caused by flight cancellations is still making itself known in the UK. The Irish Aviation Authority recently posted an €8m (£6.8m) loss for the weeks between the 15th April and the 10th May.

Manx2’s renewed commitment to Irish airports should go some way to repairing the country’s damaged aviation industry. The airline has added 32 flights to the city of Galway – 12 from Belfast, 6 from the Isle of Man, and 14 from Cork. Manx2 chief, Noel Hayes was optimistic about Ireland’s future –

‘We have enormous confidence in Ireland’s future prospects. The Galway route re-opens direct air links between Ireland’s second and fifth largest cities, eliminating a five-hour road or rail journey.’ Belfast’s new route was launched last week by a ‘Manx cat,’ otherwise known as Mellissa Magee, a catsuit-clad model.

Tickets for the route can be purchased online, priced at £39 each way.

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At 07.00 on Thurs morning, airports in Northern Ireland and Scotland were reopened to the public, following blanket closures on Wednesday evening, as Eyjafjoll’s latest ash cloud headed west over the Atlantic.

The Republic of Ireland was less fortunate, however, and within hours of the all-clear, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) reinstated a flight ban over the west cost of the country. Whilst Dublin Airport remained operational through the night, six of the Republic’s most important airports were closed until earlier today.

Shannon, Knock, Galway, Sligo and Kerry airports were closed from the early hours of this morning and reopened at 10.00, some three hours sooner than expected. Donegal Airport was open from 08.30, following an eight-hour ban on flights from the Kinclasagh site. The IAA warned that the size of the Atlantic ash cloud remains a threat to Irish aviation.

Northern Ireland, which falls under the jurisdiction of National Air Traffic Services and the Civil Aviation Authority, is relatively safe from further restrictions, at least for the next few days. Eyjafjoll’s activity has intensified significantly over the past 24 hours, however, and the Met Office is concerned that ash could return to haunt Ireland and northwest Scotland.

There is some evidence that Irish travellers are beginning to lose patience with airlines, after an operational Belfast International was left deserted yesterday evening. Flight delays continue to hamper the travel industry, and many passengers have endured successive cancellations. One airport worker compared Belfast to a ‘ghost town.’

Eyjafjoll’s temper has cost European aviation over £2bn, with Irish flag-carrier, Aer Lingus, incurring a bill of more than £17m.

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£10 million upgrade for Belfast Airport

Belfast International Airport is about to get a major overhaul in the shape of a £10 million facelift. Numerous upgrades are planned to take place over the next year, with the aim being to improve the facilities on offer at the airport and to provide a more user-friendly experience for the millions of passengers that pass through it each year. The project is being privately funded, and will begin immediately, with work expected to go on until July of next year.

One of the major improvements will be to the duty free area at the front of the terminal, which will be completely redesigned. A huge glass façade will be built, in which there will be 20 new shops and restaurants, as well as lifts and escalators that will take passengers up to the departures concourse.

One of the other major renovations to take place will be the relocation of security in the departures area. The aim behind this is to allow passengers to check in and board their flights a lot more quickly.

John Doran, the managing director of the airport, said that they will be creating “modern, spacious and service-focused facilities”, which will make the airport “easier to use”. The airport management also stressed that because the changes will take place over a long time, they will be phased in and this will cause the minimum of disruption to the passengers using the airport.

The scheme has also won approval from Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, who said that the investment “should be recognised as an investment for the future”.

Aer Lingus reduces Belfast and Dublin flights

Aer Lingus has experienced a 16% downturn in income in the first three months of 2009, compared with the same period in 2008, and as a result the budget airline announced last month that it would be looking at various options to cut costs.

News of cuts at Belfast and Dublin has now been made public but staff have been assured by Enda Corneille, the commercial director, that this will not result in any job losses.

The routes being axed are Belfast to Barcelona, Faro, Rome, Paris and Milan which will mean that the number of aircraft operating from Belfast will be able to be reduced from three to two. At least one aircraft will also be lost at Dublin but the airline has not yet announced which routes will be affected.

The airline’s millionth passenger from Belfast is expected to travel shortly and Aer Lingus has stressed its commitment to the airport which is the first outside the Irish Republic for the budget carrier.

The cuts will take effect from this winter and last until March next year, when it is hoped they will be reinstated. The measures are obviously due in part to the current economic climate but the airline has been quick to point out that it is also normal practice for airlines at that time of year.

The airline is confident that during the winter months demand will still be high for holidays to sunny destinations and so will still operate flights to such destinations as Malaga, Lanzarote and Tenerife.

BMI and Aer Lingus row over Belfast to London route

A row has erupted between Aer Lingus and bmi over who has been more successful in attracting passengers on the lucrative Belfast to London Heathrow route. Aer Lingus has claimed that bmi’s passengers are deserting the airline and that the Irish carrier has taken a 40% share of the market. Bmi, however, has hit back saying that Aer Lingus’ claim is inaccurate and that the figure is more like 34%, which includes passengers which have switched from other carriers as well. They are adamant that only a small number of bmi passengers have switched allegiance.

The old adage of “lies, damned lies and statistics” has been trotted out, with bmi saying that they are unsure “which day of the week or which day of the month or which month” Aer Lingus are using to get their figures but that what the Irish airline is saying is plain wrong.

It is now a year since Aer Lingus launched its Heathrow to Belfast route and bmi are happy that they have retained most of their business traveller base. They claim that the low prices charged by rivals, Aer Lingus, are misleading since add-ons such as charges for baggage bump the price up considerably.

Peter Spencer, managing director of bmi, has also commented publicly about the reduction in frequency of Aer Lingus’ service from four flights a day to three. An Aer Lingus spokesperson has responded by saying that bmi’s passengers have been deserting the airline “in droves” and that the real winner in this battle has been the Northern Ireland traveller.

Jet 2 launches new routes from Belfast

Low-cost airline Jet 2 announced plans last week to launch two new routes flying from Northern Ireland’s Belfast International Airport. Beginning in 2009, the flights will serve Menorca, one of the Balearic Islands and Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. The new routes will increase the total number of Jet 2 services from the airport to thirteen, offering Northern Ireland holidaymakers even more choice of budget destinations.

Both Jersey and Menorca have been popular destinations with travellers for many years, each offering a taste of idyllic island life. Menorca is particularly popular with families and couples seeking quiet beaches and relaxing holidays. Jersey also draws in many holidaymakers each year, as well as a large number of people travelling to the Channel Islands on business.

Jet 2’s prices are a great incentive for holidaymakers, particularly in the current financial climate. From May 29th 2009 travellers will be able to purchase one-way flights to Menorca for £55.99 and to Jersey for just £34.99, both inclusive of taxes and fees.

John Doran, managing director at Belfast International Airport, commended Jet 2’s decision to increase its usage of Belfast Airport, acknowledging that Northern Ireland travellers now have even more reasons to fly from Belfast rather than from Dublin, a much larger and busier airport. He said: “We are delighted to acknowledge Jet 2’s commitment to delivering greater choice for Northern Ireland travellers.”

There are now a total of 48 services flying from Belfast, a number which is expected to increase even further over the next few years.

Belfast Airport – shop stewards win legal battle

Six years ago, four shop stewards were sacked from their jobs at Belfast Airport after organising a strike. Finally, after a long and acrimonious legal battle involving hunger strikes and claims of betrayal, it looks like the case could finally have been resolved.

The four shop stewards were sacked from their jobs six years ago when they were targeted as the ringleaders behind a strike which was attempting to get a 50 pence rise in their hourly wage. However, the company which they worked for, the airport security firm ICTS, failed to agree to their demands and fired them instead.

After winning the initial trial, the four staff last week won the appeal, and so the long path to justice is finally at an end. One of the four workers, Gordon McNeill, said: "This judgment is an important victory for the whole trade union movement and a blow to anti trade union, low pay employers like ICTS."

However, another battle has arisen between the staff and Unite, the union whom they claim did not support them through their ordeal. After the recent ruling in their favour, Unite has offered each of them £40,000 in compensation on the guarantee that none of them speaks of the situation again. But Gordon McNeill is determined to expose what went on, especially the circumstances concerning the role of some of the trade union officials.

In April this year, McNeill went on a hunger strike, along with two of the other employees who were sacked, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, in protest at their treatment by Unite. McNeill was taken to hospital during the protest, which only ended when the doctors threatened to force feed him.

However, Unite has expressed dismay at their decision to continue to pursue damages against the union, saying that they have already paid the legal costs of the ICTS trial. They have described the actions of the four staff as nothing more than a “money grab”.