Posted on Friday 19 October 2012 by Ulster Business

IOD WILLIE WALSH  0003

Pictured at the IoD's annual lunch are Mervyn McCall, chairman of the IoD, guest speaker Willie Walsh from IAG, and Hans Meissner from Belfast City Airport.

International Airlines Group chief executive Willie Walsh has reiterated British Airways' commitment to Northern Ireland, but revealed that one of the carrier's Belfast landing slots at Heathrow is likely to be lost to a competitor.

Speaking at the Institute of Directors NI's annual lunch in Belfast, the CEO of BA's parent company said the terms of its takeover of bmi required the airline to give up 14 of its slots at Heathrow and one is likely to be from its Belfast schedule.

"We will in fact increase our daily schedule to seven in the winter season starting at the end of October. It is likely however that our schedule will be reduced to six in the summer because as part of the conditions of our takeover of bmi we had to give up a number of slots at Heathrow," he said.

IAG completed the purchase of bmi – which Mr Walsh described as a "chronic loss making business" – in April this year for a heavily discounted sum. He said that the early performance of Heathrow route since it came under BA's control in July had been "very encouraging".

"I can assure you that we will continue to look at opportunities to expand the number of services that we operate between Belfast and Heathrow. We will not be looking for new services from Belfast to other destinations but we think Belfast can be a very successful part of our network," the CEO added.

Around 30% of the customers flying from Belfast City Airport to Heathrow connect on to other destinations in BA's network, mostly on long haul flights.

Mr Walsh acknowledged that any claims of BA being committed to the local market might still met with a degree of cynicism and apologised for the carrier's decision to pull out of Northern Ireland in 2001.

He said that the company's management at that time had not understood the opportunities that were developing in the market – opportunities he said he had first flagged up in 2004 while CEO of Aer Lingus.

Irish airline Aer Lingus will this month go head to head with BA on the Belfast City Airport to London Heathrow route, following its decision to move from Belfast International Airport after four years.

But Mr Walsh said the Irish airline's arrival was no threat to BA's presence in Northern Ireland and he welcomed the competition.

"We expected Aer Lingus to switch because, no disrespect to the International, but City Airport is a better airport. It is the airport that the vast majority of our customers said they wanted to fly to," he said.

"We are pleased to see them there. Christophe Mueller, the CEO of Aer Lingus, has said that they offer a different value proposition to British Airways. And they do. We offer much better value," he joked.

On a more serious note, the BA chief said that the increased choice of air travel on offer was good for consumers and businesses.

"We now have four airlines competing aggressively between Belfast and London who recognise the opportunity that exists here. I think it is a vote of confidence in the economy of Northern Ireland," he said.

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