Posted on Tuesday 12 February 2013 by Ulster Business
Valerie Abbott, Commercial Manager for Aer Lingus in Northern Ireland.
The Irish flag carrier had for four years maintained a base at Belfast International Airport but a change in its strategy to focus on its connections into London prompted a commercial decision to switch to the airport it felt gave the best access to both the business and leisure markets.
As well as the three flights a day to the UK's main hub Heathrow, the carrier also used the move to launch three daily rotations to the capital's second airport, London Gatwick, and European flights are set to commence in March.
Valerie Abbott, the airline's Commercial Manager for Northern Ireland, says that the performance of its core services in the first three months has validated the decision to move.
"From a business perspective it is the airport of choice and we are seeing good growth in terms of corporate business in the traffic we're getting from the City Airport compared to when we were at the International, particularly on Heathrow," she told Ulster Business.
"The early indications are that business travel, whether it be from the large corporates or the SME market, is growing and we're very pleased by that."
Some 100 jobs were created by the £100m investment Aer Lingus made in Northern Ireland and the scale and size of its presence here is set to grow following the change of base.
"There was a perception that we had reduced flights, but actually there are now more flights than there used to be. We've increased the number of flights and number of seats so we're providing more capacity to this marketplace than ever before. It is really about frequency not routes," said Valerie.
Appointing Valerie has in itself been seen in the industry as a vote of confidence in Northern Ireland by the company. She is Aer Lingus' only commercial manager for a specific region, something Valerie says shows its commitment to Belfast and the whole north of Ireland.
"For us it is about viewing NI as a standalone market, not just an offshoot of Dublin. My role is unique as commercial manager for NI. We don't have other people in that role in other markets because we don't have bases like this elsewhere. So it is important to us to ensure we are commercially successful here in NI," she said.
Of course Valerie is not new to the Northern Ireland travel sector. She has wide-ranging experience in the airline and travel industries and has been a key member of the Aer Lingus commercial team since 2007 having worked in a variety of roles including Sales Manager Ireland and Business Manager Europe for Tour Operators and Online Travel Agents.
Prior to joining Aer Lingus, Valerie worked as Sales Manager Ireland for Travelport, and worked in both Dublin and Belfast as Sales Manager Ireland for BMI.
"I've been a cross border worker for a long time. I've lived here all my life and been working in Dublin since 1998, travelling up and down between Dublin and Belfast during that time," she explained.
"It has been a fantastic time to come back and I've enjoyed it so far. It has been hard work, its tough, people have high targets, we can't afford to take our eye off the ball no matter how good things are, but I am enjoying it."
In a crowded market where it is competing with BA, easyjet and FlyBe, Valerie believes Aer Lingus already has a strong foothold. She keeps a desk in the operations office in the airport and gets regular reports from the airline's captains and cabin crew on passenger feedback.
"Our research tells us that our passengers view us as a very professional airline, that we care about our passengers, and that we're value for money," she said. "We have very low and competitive fares out there, but I think travellers are more sophisticated than that, even on a short route like Belfast to London."
Aer Lingus has dismissed suggestions it will ultimately do some kind of deal with BA on the Heathrow route. In fact, CEO Christoph Mueller is on record as saying that the company would like to increase the number of flights to the London hub if the opportunity arose.
"It is always a possibility," says Valerie. "We've doubled our capacity from Belfast to London between Heathrow and Gatwick, and we're increasing that in summer, with another flight to Gatwick six days a week.
"The focus for us is on having that capacity to 'destination London' and within that we obviously look at Heathrow separately because they serve different markets. Heathrow has huge point to point traffic but is also significant in terms of connectivity to the rest of the world, both into and out of NI. Any additional flights would take that into consideration. It is in consideration but the issue is as much to do with available slots as it is our desire."
More immediately, Valerie says her company thinks there is a demand for increase capacity to Gatwick, and an opportunity for Northern Ireland to look at connecting to the rest of the world through other airports, not just Heathrow. She notes that KLM for many years operated a quite successful service from Belfast to Amsterdam, which suggests it could be done.
"There are a couple of obvious premier airports that could be considered, the likes of Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris. We already deliver a lot of traffic to them from Dublin, so it is in the realm of the possible, not the impossible. It is an opportunity Northern Ireland is still lacking in terms of connectivity."
In what was a huge year for tourism, Aer Lingus saw its 2012 move to the City Airport as a big opportunity to firmly establish itself for this push into international travel from Belfast.
The link to Heathrow and its huge network of onward connections was a factor, but direct flights to Europe remain a big part of the airline's plans in Northern Ireland.
"Once we are established that gives us a stepping stone to establish international routes from the City Airport, which isn't a new concept but it is something that has been under-developed at City Airport. I think that's really exciting," explains Valerie.
Aer Lingus flies Airbus 319 aircraft from Belfast, meaning it can reach major European and Mediterranean destinations from City Airport. This summer it will fly seven times weekly to Malaga, six times weekly to Faro, and is launching a twice weekly service to Palma.
"People will always find money from somewhere to have a break. There's been a lot of focus on staycations but I guess the advantage of Malaga and Faro is that there are still a lot of second homes and holiday homes out there and what we've found is that people who own those homes are intending to use them more themselves or for family and friends," explains Valerie.
"The Costa Del Sol, Algarve and Majorca are among the top Northern Ireland holiday destinations, so it is not by chance we have chosen to fly there. But it is important that we choose these operations carefully because they have to be successful for us in order to build on that moving forward. Our medium to long term strategy is to develop the network from Belfast City Airport."
While it sees ongoing potential in the sunshine holiday market, Aer Lingus believes there's also opportunity to tap into a big inbound tourism market.
"The likes of Germany would be worth considering, but only if there was support. It would need a coming together of minds, with real backing from tourism bodies and Invest NI needed to make it successful through partnership," Valerie adds.
Tourism chiefs are understandably nervous about the negative image of Northern Ireland which has been beamed around the world following the protests connected to the flying of the Union flag in Belfast. It is a problem Aer Lingus would like to see resolved quickly, agrees Valerie.
"In travel terms we're talking about, not so much long term impact, but people who are planning their holidays for later in 2013 and even 2014, not just individuals but tour operators, conferences, meetings. For anyone who is planning those kinds of meetings, perhaps even into 2014, what's happening now will influence their decisions," she said.
"If we think it is not going to matter then we're fooling ourselves. It is very unfortunate and I would absolutely hope we can overcome the current situation very, very quickly. We cannot allow this to escalate any further. It is not irreparable but it has to happen sooner rather than later."