Tuesday, October 17, 2017
   
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EU Regulators Refuse to Get Involved in Gatwick Slots Controversy

The EU has refused to comment on the possibility that Ryanair have ignored EU rules by discontinuing its Belfast International to Gatwick service for the winter season.

Last week Ryanair, dogged by controversy in recent weeks after it announced thousands of flight cancellations, announced a new raft of flight withdrawals during the winter season, aimed at freeing up 25 aircraft and getting the airline's schedules back on an even keel.

The only service affected to Ireland, north or south, was the five a day service between Belfast International and Gatwick which has been suspended until the end of March next year.

Just over two years ago Ryanair was given the all-clear by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to sell its 29.8pc stake in Aer Lingus to IAG, removing a potential obstacle to the €1.36bn takeover of the former state-owned airline. At the time Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said that the airline intended to bid for take-off and landing slots at Gatwick airport that would have to be relinquished by IAG as part of a deal with the European Commission to allow the Aer Lingus takeover to go ahead.

The EU gave the Aer Lingus takeover the green light, but ruled that to allay competition concerns IAG had to surrender five daily take-off and landing slots at Gatwick as one of two concessions. A stipulation was that two of the slots had to be operated between Dublin and Gatwick, and one between Belfast and Gatwick. The two remaining slots could be used to serve either Dublin or Belfast.

At the time the Republic's Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe welcomed the EC decision to hand IAG Gatwick slots over to competitors. He said he has “absolutely every confidence” that the routes between Gatwick, Dublin and Belfast would be maintained in the future.

However, last week's decision to withdraw its Belfast-Gatwick service for the winter schedule beginning at the end of October until the beginning of the summer timetable 2018, takes a huge chunk out of the total number of seats available between Belfast and London, and is clearly at odds with that stipulation. Other airlines will be unable to make up the shortfall at such short notice and travel chaos is forecast, particularly during the busy Christmas period when many thousands of travellers who traditionally return home to spend the Christmas holidays with their families will have to search for alternative ways to travel.

Yesterday, when contacted by Northern Ireland Travel News, Alexis Perier, Press Officer for Transport at the EU, said: "I have checked with my colleagues and at this time we have no particular comment to make on this matter."

With British Airways reducing its rotations from Belfast City Airport to Heathrow and Flybe having withdrawn its Gatwick service, also from Belfast City two years ago, total availability of seats between Belfast and London is now at its lowest level for some years.

Meanwhile, Ryanair says that 98 per cent of customers affected by cancellations in September and October have been refunded or transferred on to alternative transport, with the remaining two per cent have yet to contact the group. The airline’s September traffic figures, which include the initial 2,100 cancellations announced, show passenger traffic grew 10 per cent to 11.8 million. Its load factor – a measure of how well it fills its planes – improved to 97 per cent from 95 per cent a year earlier.

Ryanair has been under fire continually recently  since it announced last month that 2,100 flights would be cancelled in September and October – up to 50 a day – due to an error over pilot holiday rosters. It delivered a further blow last week when it said an extra 18,000 flights for the winter season were cancelled – a move that will hit 400,000 customers, including Belfast International to Gatwick travellers.

The low-cost carrier was forced to email customers affected by flight cancellations over the weekend to clarify their rights after it was threatened with legal action. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had accused the Dublin-based carrier of “not complying with the law” over its handling of the cancellations.

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