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Flight fight

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Two of Europe’s leading low-cost airlines are reportedly both in negotiations to establish a base at Portugal’s busiest international airport, Portela, in the prosperous capital city of Lisbon (at least in tourism terms), while leading travel company Thomas Cook has left the traditionally popular winter destination of the Algarve off its programme for 2010.

Days after Lisbon scooped the World Travel Awards’ prestigious ‘Europe’s Leading City Break Destination’ title – for the second year running – rival low-cost airlines Ryanair and easyJet reportedly both want to establish Portela as a hub for their operations.

Luton-based airline easyJet currently operates 17 routes from Lisbon, to destinations in the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, as well as a domestic flight to Funchal, Madeira. However, it does not yet have a base in Portugal.

Its Irish counterpart, Dublin-born Ryanair, does not operate flights to or from Lisbon Airport, but has two bases in Portugal, in Oporto (Sá Carneiro) and in the Algarve (Faro), which was inaugurated this summer.

Ryanair announced its intention to establish a third national base in Lisbon during a press conference held in Oporto last week. The airline believes that by next summer its goal could be a reality. It also proposed operating from the airport’s ‘Terminal 3’, which is currently used for domestic flights.

During the press conference Ryanair spokesperson Daniel de Carvalho said the airline was “confident” with the way negotiations with national airport management company ANA were developing. The main obstacles in reaching an agreement with ANA regarding operations at Lisbon were highlighted as the infra-structure’s inability to meet the airline’s 25-minute turn-around time as well as the high taxes being charged by Portela.

“Lisbon is still more expensive than we would like”, he said.

Earlier this week, Daniel de Carvalho reiterated to The Portugal News: “We are in talks about Lisbon indeed, but [we] need to see a) a better price linked to strong traffic increase and b) better operational accommodation of our needs as is done in Faro and Oporto”.

Meanwhile, the company has slashed its routes from Faro for the winter season, from the 31 that it operated during the summer, to 17. The airline will start to phase out flights to destinations including Madrid as of November 1st.

Flights will remain active to Paris Beauvais, Eindhoven, London Stansted, Dublin, Oporto, Bristol, East Midlands, Leeds, Edinburg, Liverpool, Glasgow, Brussels, Bremen, Frankfurt Hahn, Nierderhein, Cork, and to London Gatwick, the most recently-introduced destination.

“Remember, in aviation nothing is ever written in stone when a strong expansion is taking place. So further news for Faro cannot be ruled out”, Daniel de Carvalho explained.

Meanwhile, and in an unprecedented move, leading travel company Thomas Cook has excluded the Algarve from its winter destinations programme.

Questioned whether this was because of the strong competition from low-cost carriers, a spokesperson for the company told The Portugal News “It is a combination of factors”.

“The Thomas Cook brand won’t be chartering into Faro until April, but we have alternatives for our customers who want to travel to that region”, the representative explained.

Destinations like Egypt and Turkey, where families can enjoy “all-inclusive holidays” at competitive prices, are seemingly providing hefty competition to traditional winter sun destinations such as Portugal and Spain. Also, people are “more willing to take flights that may be a little longer [than standard short-haul] but the good weather is guaranteed”.

The representative was adamant that the Algarve is still one of the company’s most popular destinations “from Easter onwards”, but explained that the programmes “are reviewed based on past figures, and then tweaked”.

Ryanair currently transports more than 3.3 million passengers to and from the airports of Faro and Oporto. Tourism officials in both regions have acknowledged the Irish low-cost company’s role in boosting tourism.

Despite having inaugurated its Faro Airport base just six months ago, local authorities, business and travel operators have all confirmed they have noticed a difference in the number of visitors to the city.

The Regional Algarve Tourism Board (ERTA) says it has registered a growth in hotel occupation rates and restaurant performance over recent months, as well as in the number of requests in city Tourist Information points.

“Faro has benefitted from this phenomenon. The new ‘low-cost’ routes are helping restaurants and hotels in the Algarve’s ‘capital’ in a very determining way, every day bringing with them lots of people from the Benelux countries, Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg, as well as many British, Irish, French and Danish passengers”, said Nuno Aires, President of the ERTA.

Faro Mayor Macário Correia agreed that there has been a new “invasion of tourists”, who arrive in the Algarve via ‘low-cost’ flights.

“I am now regularly hearing various foreign languages spoken by passersby outside my office window. The city has more people and the hotel and restaurant industries are profiting and that is good for the city”, he reflected.

Data from ANA shows that low-cost flights to Faro Airport brought some 3.650 million passengers to the region between January and August this year, up 157,000 from the same period in 2009.

The benefits of having a low-cost airline based in the capital have also been recognised by the Lisbon Tourism Association (ATL).

It has recently emerged that easyJet may also have its sights set on the Portuguese capital after it was reported that the company had shortlisted Lisbon as a new European base. The news first broke in May this year, when it was announced Lisbon had been picked out from an initial line up of some 70 candidates. Then last week, on September 30th, financial newspaper Diário Económico claimed easyJet’s installation at Portela would be officially confirmed within the next three weeks.

Lisbon is reportedly competing with Barcelona, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and whichever destination it elects as its hub will be ‘home’ to an initial three aircraft, which should gradually increase to seven.

Earlier this year a spokesperson for the company dismissed the reports, telling Portuguese newspaper Público they were “rumours” and there were “no comments” to be made.

Speaking to The Portugal News on Thursday morning this week, a spokesperson for easyJet’s European operations said: “We cannot make comments on rumours or speculation (…), but we are constantly in negotiations [with airports]”.

Maintaining the mystery, she said: “If anything happens we will make an announcement in due time via the regular channels”.

ANA Airports of Portugal declined to comment on the subject, despite sources from ANA being quoted in national newspapers as affirming “negotiations are ongoing”.

easyJet is responsible for transporting the second largest amount of passengers to and from Lisbon and its investment in Portela was calculated by Diário Económico as being worth around €1.2 billion to the capital, over the next six years.

Despite the ongoing economic crisis that has taken its toll on the travel industry all over the world, air traffic in Portuguese airports grew by 10.4 percent in August this year, in comparison to August 2009, with Oporto registering the most significant surge in figures.

Overall, according to ANA, between January and August this year, in comparison to the same period of 2009, commercial passengers being processed by national airports grew by 6.6 percent.

In a press statement published this week by ANA – Airports of Portugal said that the improvement on last year’s performance “confirms the good efforts being made by national airports, which have been noticeable since May”.

Air traffic to and from Oporto’s Sá Carneiro Airport rose by 24.1 percent in August this summer, in comparison to the same month of 2009, and set a record when for the first time it broke the ‘600,000 passengers per month’ barrier.

In August this year a total of 622,129 passengers travelled through Sá Carneiro.

Growth at Faro Airport that month was estimated to have been of around 10.5 percent, while Lisbon registered an increase of 7.1 percent on last year’s August figures.

August this year was in fact also a record-breaking month for Lisbon’s Portela Airport, which registered significant improvements in the number of passengers and revenue from retail outlets within the infrastructure, breaking two previous performance records in both areas.

Figures from August 2010 smashed the previously established record for the ‘number of passengers processed in one month’, which had been set in August 2008, having this year registered 1,602,193 people arriving or departing from the airport, 87,000 more passengers than two years earlier.

A previous record for the number of passengers processed in one day was also broken when on August 1st 2010, 57,885 travellers passed through Lisbon Airport in 24 hours.

In conclusion, 2010 is, so far, the best year ever for Lisbon Airport. Carrie-Marie Bratley