Uncertainty surrounds the future of Flybe routes into and out of Belfast after the airline left thousands of passengers stranded on Wednesday.
Flybe has confirmed that it plans to reduce its fleet by returning all its 118-seat Embraer 195 aircraft to its lessors. The 78-seat Bombardier Q-400 will continue as the “backbone” of Flybe’s network, it said.
That decision will not impact Flybe services out of Belfast, which already use the Bombardier turboprop aircraft.
But the company could not say whether its ongoing review could lead to changes in schedules or frequency of flights in a way that could advsersely impact its operations out of Belfast.
The airline said it intends to close both its Cardiff and Doncaster bases as part of a review to reduce the size of its fleet, but will continue to offer flights to and from both airports.
The airline had cancelled 10 flights at short notice to and from the airport on Wednesday, including five morning commuter flights, leaving many passengers stranded. The disruption was part of a broader series of cancellations that saw dozens of flights across the UK pulled.
Flybe blamed the cancellations on a combination of factors “including seasonality, pilots’ end of leave year, Easter holidays, base restructuring and the shortage of pilots across the industry”.
It maintained that the cancellations were not due to its base review.
Passengers affected by the disruption are entitled to refunds of their ticket or provision of an alternate flight, according to the Consumer Council.
“Late cancellations of flights cause huge inconvenience for passengers, particularly those travelling to or from Northern Ireland who have limited alternative options,” said Richard Williams, head of policy (transport) at the council.
“If your flight has been cancelled, the airline must offer you a choice between a refund and an alternative flight. You may be entitled to assistance such as meals, refreshments, telephone calls, emails or overnight accommodation while you wait.
“Given the Flybe statement regarding the causes behind the cancellations, passengers should also be entitled to compensation under EU regulations,” he said.
The regional airline currently flies to 16 destinations from Belfast City airport.
Deb Barber, chief executive at Cardiff Airport, said she was aware that Flybe was in the “process of consulting with a number of its employees, including its crew at multiple bases across its network, which includes Cardiff”.
Ms Barber said: “Flybe’s plan to restructure and reduce its jet operations across many bases is part of the company’s long-standing objective to stabilise the business.
“This is a further sign to UK Government that more needs to be done to support regional flying. The uncertainty of Brexit, currency and fuel costs are all impacting on the industry,” Ms Barber said. “Air Passenger Duty presents an additional cost burden, especially with the ‘double hit’ on domestic services which make up the majority of the Flybe network.”
Airport chiefs in the North have consistently claimed that the duty leaves airports in Northern Ireland at a “competitive disadvantage” to their competitors in the South.
A spokesperson for Belfast City Airport said that Flybe was its largest and longest-serving airline customer “and we are continuing to engage with and support the team throughout this process”.
“Belfast City Airport remains a profitable base for Flybe and we therefore do not expect any significant changes to the destinations served from Belfast.”
Flybe is owned by Connect Airways, a joint venture between Virgin Atlantic, Stobart Aviation and Cyrus Capital, a fund management company. It flies on more than 210 routes to 81 airports in 15 countries, carrying eight million passengers.
The three parties acquired control of Flybe in January in a £2.2 million deal (€2.5 million). Flybe had run into financial trouble due to fuel costs and declining fares on its routes, which typically connect smaller UK cities.
At the time, Unite, the trade union that represents a significant number of the airline’s cabin crew, warned that it was concerned about “future job security” for its 450 members employed by Flybe.
Unite said it wants to “minimise” any job losses at Flybe and get “reassurances about the company’s overall health” after the flight cancellations on Wednesday.
According to the union, consultation talks are due to begin next week on proposals by Flybe for the potential redundancy of up to 38 pilots and 52 cabin crew.
Unite regional officer Peter Coulson said: "Unite is seeking to minimise the potential job losses and secure assurances about Flybe's long-term future.