Why Is Ryanair Pulling Out Of Northern Ireland?

Ryanair is to end serving Belfast – and therefore Northern Ireland – by the end of the summer. It has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the country’s largest city for years. Despite protesting Air Passenger Duty and insufficiently good financial incentives, it really comes down to performance not being up to expectations. It’s a stark reminder of how recovery is still very slow in the UK – even for leisure demand.

Ryanair
Ryanair will cease serving Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty Images.

What’s happening?

Within the past day, Ryanair, Europe’s largest ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC), has revealed that Belfast International will now no longer be served. The airline had begun this route in 2016.

Six routes – to Alicante, Gdansk, Krakow, Malaga, Milan Bergamo, and Warsaw Modlin – will end. Most are already served by other carriers, with only Gdansk and Warsaw remaining unserved (for now). easyJet will relaunch Krakow, a Polish market with strong inbound tourism demand, from April 2022.

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Ryanair’s exit from Belfast International comes as all of its routes from Belfast City, from which it resumed flying only this June, will cease in mid-September. All routes were summer-seasonal anyway and driven by pent-up demand from coronavirus. But their end has been brought forward. The carrier’s exit from both Belfast airports follows Derry ending in January, which it had served for many years.

Ryanair's development in Belfast
Notice Belfast International’s capacity in 2018 and 2019, so soon after starting. This was mainly from the reduction and then the exit of high-frequency London Gatwick and the launch and reduction (and ultimate end) of Stansted and Manchester. Source of data: OAG Schedules Analyzer.

Why is it happening?

Make no mistake: the routes weren’t performing to expectations and were pulled for that reason. And if there’s little prospect of a turnaround, the decision to remove them should be made. Despite logic and planning, route cuts are inevitable for any airline, with some suggesting that as many as 30% of new routes don’t work.

Of course, Ryanair doesn’t frame it in this way and instead allocates blame. In the case of Belfast, the finger has been pointed at both Air Passenger Duty (APD) and a lack of suitable incentives from the airports. The latter is somewhat disingenuous as both parties agreed to the financial terms. Ryanair was undoubtedly sufficiently happy with the agreement – even as recently as June.

APD, though, is somewhat different, although it has existed for a long time. A passenger flying from Belfast to Malaga would pay £13 APD, against zero if they travel to Dublin and fly from there. That’s a good proportion of Ryanair’s average fare at the best of times, let alone if a route is struggling. But APD didn’t stop Ryanair from resuming Belfast City earlier this year or serving Belfast International for five years.

Ryanair 738
A degree of ‘route churn’ should happen, or an airline is too risk-averse. Photo: Getty Images.

Ryanair at Belfast

Ryanair initially served Belfast’s downtown airport between October 2007 and October 2010 with one based B737-800. All routes were domestic UK: Bristol, East Midlands, Liverpool, London Stansted, and the 80-mile, across-the-water link to Prestwick. The author flew East Midlands-Belfast City a few times.

It wasn’t until January 2016 that the ULCC announced plans to serve Northern Ireland’s largest city again, this time from Belfast International with its longer runway and much more favorable opening hours. However, there was also much more direct competition, especially from easyJet, Jet2, and TUI.

Ryanair Boeing 737-800 Takeoff In Eindhoven
Ryanair’s eight routes from Belfast City in 2021 are Alicante, Barcelona, Faro, Ibiza, Malaga, Milan Bergamo, Palma, and Valencia. Despite City’s short runway (6,001 feet), the longer routes were made possible by the enhanced short runway length capability of the ULCC’s B737-800s. Photo: Getty Images.

Three aircraft at Belfast International

Ryanair would have three aircraft at International with 11 routes in 2016, most significantly to Gatwick. Its route map rose to 14 the following year and 15 in 2018/2019, shrinking to six this year. There was a large focus on international services.

Then, in March 2021, it announced its return to Belfast City after an 11-year absence, partly to avail of the gap left by Aer Lingus’ exit and partly, it hoped, to benefit from pent-up holiday demand. Unlike before, it’d focus exclusively on Spain, Portugal, and Italy with eight routes, some of which competed with its own services – and that of others – from International.

What do you make of Ryanair ending Northern Ireland? Let us know in the comments.

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