European carrier in sights; Port Columbus hopes to woo Ireland-based Ryanair

Port Columbus is courting highly successful Ryanair, with hopes of persuading the European carrier to bring trans-Atlantic service to central Ohio.

David Whitaker, business-development chief for the airport, yesterday confirmed plans for a meeting with the carrier next month in Dublin, Ireland, where Ryanair is based. He said Port Columbus would make an attractive fit for Ryanair.

"We're building some real low-cost synergy here," Whitaker said. "Skybus is part of that. So are Southwest and JetBlue."

Southwest carries more passengers at Port Columbus than any other airline and was the original low-cost model for Ryanair. Skybus, launched last month, was modeled after Ryanair and employs several former Ryanair employees, including Vice Chairman Charlie Clifton.

Whitaker and John Malabad, assistant business-development executive, typically go to Europe every summer to try to attract international service to Port Columbus. London and Frankfurt, Germany, are among the top European destinations for international travelers who begin their trips in Columbus.

Peter Sherrard, chief of corporate communications for Ryanair, declined to comment on the meeting. "We don't comment on rumors," he said. Ryanair also is expected to meet with officials from other airports as it explores the possibility of expanding outside Europe.

Ryanair has become Europe's biggest and most profitable airline by offering fares as low as a penny and then charging for every extra from snacks to priority boarding.

Talk of the company entering the trans-Atlantic market has heated up with the expected passage of the Open Skies agreement, which would allow U.S. and European airlines more freedom to fly any route between the two continents.

Ryanair could enter the U.S. market in several ways. Chief Executive Michael O'Leary stresses that if the carrier starts trans-Atlantic flights, it would be done as a separate company to Ryanair as a way to keep it apart from Ryanair's profitable core business.

Ryanair owns 25 percent of Irish carrier Aer Lingus and has made a hostile takeover bid for the rest of the company. Such an acquisition would give Ryanair access to that carrier's trans-Atlantic business.

But many observers expect the European Union to reject that bid. If Ryanair were to start a new venture flying to the U.S., it likely wouldn't be until at least 2011, because of the amount of time it would take to acquire an aircraft fleet in the current tight market.

In that case, Ryanair might look to form some sort of alliance with a low-cost U.S. carrier that shares its goal of keeping costs down by flying to secondary airports while still tapping into large population bases.

Doug Abbey, partner in the Velocity Group, a Washington-based air-service consultancy, said the idea of Ryanair-backed flights coming to Port Columbus isn't out of the question.

"Geography is critical for an international hub," Abbey said. "Columbus provides that. You can reach a lot of the country easily from there."

Abbey said that the whole scenario is "very speculative," but he said Port Columbus is smart to go on the offensive early.

"My hat is off to Port Columbus for being ahead of the curve," Abbey said. "It's always smart for an airport to get in early and make their case, to try to elevate itself in the food chain."

mrose@dispatch.com



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