Flybe pulls out of Belfast to London Gatwick flights
The airline Flybe is dropping its direct flights from Belfast City airport to London Gatwick from the end of March 2014.
The route has been axed after the Exeter-based company sold its runway slots at Gatwick airport.
Some of the company's Gatwick slots have been sold to Easyjet.
Flybe held 25 take-off and landing slots at Gatwick. The sell-off could provide the company with a cash injection of up to £20m.
But it means the company has now quit its main London hub.
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said he was "very disappointed" at Flybe's decision.
"We still have a number of other airlines that fly to Gatwick from our airports so our connection to this important hub will be maintained," he said.
"Looking forward, and with Flybe maintaining their service to March next year, I hope that we will see other airlines step in to fill the gap that has been left by this unfortunate decision. Our local aviation industry has proven to be very competitive in this regard in the past."
Mr Wilson said Air Passenger Duty (APD) was "an unfair tax that impacts disproportionately on regions like Northern Ireland with limited alternative transport options".
"The executive devolved and eliminated APD on direct long-haul flights to secure the future of the direct air link to New York, but it needs to be recognised that further devolution of short-haul APD would not be an easy or painless option," he said.
"We would, under EU rules, face a spending block reduction of an estimated £60-£90m per annum which would clearly have an impact on the provision of vital services such as health and education."
Mr Wilson said he intended to write to the chancellor to raise the issue again.
Brian Ambrose, chief executive of Belfast City airport, said he was confident they would be able to find another airline to replace Flybe on the Gatwick route.
"We're used to changes to our network and I'm confident by this time next year we'll not only have replaced our Gatwick capacity, but will have built up other capacities," he said.
"Flybe is our biggest customer, but we've established a significant demand from Belfast City to London Gatwick.
"When you have a route with significant demand, other airlines take notice."
In a statement, EasyJet said: "EasyJet plc can confirm it has completed an agreement with Flybe Group plc to acquire 25 pairs of arrival and departure slots at Gatwick airport for a total consideration of £20m.
"The acquisition is subject to the approval of Flybe's shareholders.
"The slots will transfer from summer 2014 and will allow EasyJet to provide additional frequencies on popular existing routes from Gatwick as well as add new destinations across the UK and Europe."
Following the announcement, Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey said it was important to guarantee air links between Northern Ireland and London.
"The Ulster Unionist party is continuing its campaign, in London and in Brussels, to ensure that Northern Ireland is not cut off from the national hub airport at Heathrow," he said.
"Over a year ago there were 10 direct regional connections from UK regional airports to Heathrow - today that has been reduced to eight regional city connections to Heathrow, so do not listen to those who say there is not a problem," he added.
"Aviation is a very volatile business and there are no guarantees that changes cannot be made in the future to our disadvantage."
Flybe was floated on the stock market at the end of 2010. Since then it has faced soaring fuel costs, falling passenger numbers and higher airport duty.
It is currently axing about 10% of its 3,000-strong UK workforce to cut costs by at least £35m. It has also reviewed its network of 13 UK bases of Aberdeen, Belfast City, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Guernsey, Glasgow, Inverness, Isle of Man, Jersey, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton.
A year ago, Flybe ended its flights from Belfast City airport to Bristol. The airline said passenger levels were unsustainable.
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