A new startup airline, Fly Atlantic, plans to launch low-cost, long-haul flights between Belfast (BFS) and North America in 2024, stepping into a notoriously unforgiving market sector.
The new carrier has yet to confirm specific routes or pricing but claims it will fly to 35 destinations, including short-haul flights in Europe.
“Our vision is of Belfast as a strong aviation hub linking Europe and North America,” chief executive Andrew Pyne said. “The lack of direct transatlantic air services has clearly been an impediment to Northern Ireland’s economic and tourism development, which we now intend to remove. The project can be a game changer.”
Fly Atlantic settled on Belfast as its hub after looking at “many options throughout the U.K. and Ireland,” he added. “Belfast International and [owner] Vinci stood out in terms of the facilities that they offered us and by their enthusiasm for and commitment to making this project a reality.”
Currently, most travelers on the island reach the United States through Dublin (DUB) and Shannon (SNN)—both in the Republic of Ireland. At these two locations, passengers clear U.S. customs and border control before departure, cutting down waits after they land. However, passengers departing from Belfast—in the United Kingdom—will be treated to a different convenience, as the U.S. allows pre-clearance on flights departing from six countries, including the Republic of Ireland.
The new airline plans to rapidly expand its fleet from six aircraft at launch to 18 by 2028. Although no orders have been made, Fly Atlantic is reportedly talking with Airbus and Boeing for the A321LR and the 737 MAX, respectively. Both types of aircraft are now filling the northern Transatlantic airspace with several carriers, including TAP Air Portugal, JetBlue, and Air Canada.
Fly Atlantic’s biggest challenge will be to lure customers away from Dublin and Shannon to travel overseas to the U.S. Several airlines have attempted the same strategy over the last few years but have either backed away from the routes (Norwegian) or gone bankrupt (WOW).
Aviation history is littered with airlines that have tried and failed to make cheap transatlantic flights viable. For example, in the 1970s, British entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker offered an economical Skytrain service from London Gatwick (LGW) to New York (JFK). However, the airline collapsed under mountains of debt by the decade’s end.
In the 1980s, U.S. carrier, People Express, launched flights between Newark (EWR) and Gatwick (LGW), charging a then-unprecedented $149 each way. It also added a route to Brussels. While the flights sold out instantly, the carrier overstretched itself and filed for bankruptcy in 1986.
The Belfast to North America itinerary is particularly treacherous. Scottish airline Flyglobespan attempted to connect Northern Ireland with Toronto and theme park paradise Orlando (MCO) in 2003 but foundered in 2008.
Exactly ten years later, Norwegian took up the Belfast-U.S. route, which was short-lived, axed during the pandemic, and never resumed.
Icelandic carrier WOW Air, also connected Europe to 15 U.S. destinations through its Reykjavík–Keflavík (KEF) hub, but most of those routes were a flash in the pan. Connections to Cincinnati (CVG), Cleveland (CLE), Dallas (DFW), Orlando (MCO), and St. Louis (STL) lasted just months. The airline went under in 2019.
But carriers still can’t resist the lure of cheap transatlantic flights, which attract media attention and scores of budget-conscious customers. Fly Atlantic isn’t the only airline currently gearing up to cross the ocean for peanuts—startup Norse Atlantic has just started selling tickets for flights next summer between London and New York, priced at as little as $327 round-trip.
Fly Atlantic will start flying in the summer of 2024, with tickets on sale sometime next year.