Ryanair Reveals new Route to Belfast, Hints at More Links From Budapest

In Budapest

Michael O’Leary and CEE Country Manager Alicja Wojcik Golebiowska.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary announced his low-cost carrier will link the Hungarian capital to Northern Ireland from March, along with ambitious expansion plans everywhere in Europe, and hopes that Hungary will scrap its special airport tax.

But aside from excitedly talking up his company’s numbers, some seemingly contradictory statements, and typical O’Learyesque disparaging of rival carriers, he presided over what may have been one of the most newsless news conferences ever held in Budapest on Tuesday, January 24.

But, ever the show host, O’Leary began brightly and steadfastly maintained his stance to the end.

“The good news this morning is that this will be our largest summer schedule [in Hungary], and we have one new route to announce, linking Budapest with the exciting city of Belfast, in [Northern] Ireland. So those of you looking for a sun getaway destination can sample the delights of Belfast this summer,” he quipped, in defiance of the facts.

(According to website weather and climate sites, “sunspot” Belfast has 1,302 hours of sunshine per year, while Budapest has 1,890, some 45% more.)

The CEO was also a little unsure regarding the number of weekly flights to the province, initially claiming “three or four” before, being pressed for accuracy, he asked an aide. “Two,” the assistant clarified.

O’Leary then launched into his regular spiel about Ryanair as Europe’s largest, greenest and cheapest airline, which is aiming to add 51 new planes this year to its fleet, and its recovery post-pandemic.

“We’re operating this winter at 110% of our pre-COVID capacity. That is a record across Europe; most of the legacy airlines are operating at about 70% of pre-COVID capacity,” he said.

Turning to Budapest, he insisted the Hungarian market was proving most resilient, achieving monthly load factors in the last quarter of 2022 of 92-94%.

With eight aircraft based at Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport (unchanged from last year), Ryanair expects to carry four million passengers to and from the Hungarian capital over the next 12 months, “making us the number one airline in Budapest [...] We have about 10% more flights than Wizz Air, and [will] have a 32% market share, with Wizz Air down to 29%,” he forecast.

Risks to Recovery

Listing the prominent risks to the recovery, he noted potential “adverse news flow from Ukraine,” COVID, and concerns over inflation eating into disposable incomes. However, he stressed that, thus far, “we haven’t seen any evidence of that.”

Notably, unlike his press conference in Budapest last September, while critical, he was far less discourteous to the Hungarian government over the special tax slapped onto airline passengers from July last year.

Asked to clarify the current situation, O’Leary responded: “As you know, the government have changed the format of that tax from this ludicrous excess-profits tax, which was levied on handling agents, which, of course, was never going to be levied on handling agents. It’s now an eco[logical] tax, although we continue to think it is manifestly unfair.”

He then read an email from his legal team, which is fighting to have the tax rescinded via Hungary’s Constitutional Court.

“We had a hearing in the Hungarian Constitutional Court yesterday [… which] we believe went well. The judgment is expected in the first half of 2023 […], and we trust that the Court will make the right decision and overturn this anti-consumer, anti-competitive and non-environmental tax. And then my lawyer says: ‘And don’t say anything else!’”

Asked if his carrier planned any further new routes from Budapest, O’Leary initially cited his current mantra:

“It all depends on the eco-taxes. If the eco-taxes get scrapped, there would be a significant announcement of new routes, and we would base more aircraft here. This is a market that we do want to grow, and we’d like to grow rapidly.”

Declaring Budapest as “a city with cultural vibrancy” and one of the “great city-break destinations across Europe, all year round.” Its potential is “just being strangled by this silly eco-tax that raises so little money for the government,” he added.

“We have Ireland pretty well covered now we’re linking Budapest to Dublin and Belfast; that’s more or less all you need. But there are lots of more routes we’d like to link to Budapest,” he said, citing Italy, Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal as being of particular interest.

Likely Passenger

Asked by the Budapest Business Journal about the passengers likely to use the new Belfast flights, O’Leary said he expected a good flow of inbound visitors coming to Budapest for a city break.

“It’s a new destination for Belfast. The city has a lot of flights to the U.K. and European sun spots, Spain, Portugal and Italy, but it doesn’t have these kinds of interesting European cities.”

There would be Hungarians living and working in Ireland and their equivalents resident in Hungary. At the same time, “there are probably a few crazy Hungarians who want to go to Belfast for a weekend. There’s [the] Titanic, pubs, […] there used to be a war on up there about 20 years ago, [and] you can do interesting taxi drives around the [former troubled areas]. We don’t know who’ll fly there, but we’re pretty sure with our prices, we’ll be able to fill our [planes],” he said.

The new link was welcomed, if with certain reservations, by Thomas Sneddon, a professional translator, originally from Northern Ireland and now living near Budapest.

He told the BBJ: “Yes, there was already talk of it when I was home at Christmas, but we didn’t know how many flights there would be. Twice a week is fine, but it’s a pain that all the return flights to Belfast are at 6:30 in the morning.”

Regardless of the bleary eyes and hangovers likely to be encountered by some segments of the passenger market, Ryanair usually does its homework when launching new routes.

However, given the paucity of hard news offered in the 42-minute press conference, the BBJ asked O’Leary afterward how frequently he took the trip to county Cork to kiss the Blarney Stone, a limestone rock in Ireland which traditionally gives the kisser an enhanced level of eloquence.

The former accountant retorted: “I’ve never been there, and I come from Cork. I’ve been talking shite now for 40 years, all my career, so I don’t need to go there!”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of January 27, 2023.

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