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European airlines prepare for record summer passenger numbers

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European airlines are preparing for record passenger numbers this summer as people rush to book flights despite the economic gloom and high ticket prices.

Ryanair, easyJet and Wizz Air, the region’s three big low-cost airlines, all pointed to early signs of strong summer demand, as well as rising fares, in their most recent results.

Indications that consumers are prioritising travel have spurred airlines to increase flights over summer: European airlines will have 817.5mn seats available between April and October, according to travel data company OAG, the highest number on record.

“Demand remains very strong across the board,” said Wizz Air chief executive József Váradi.

Airlines are on course for a second consecutive bumper summer, after reporting healthy profits thanks to high fares last year.

Adjusted operating profits for the six largest European carriers are expect to hit €10.5bn in 2024, according to consensus estimates from FactSet, up from €9.2bn last year.

EasyJet said it had been filling two planes a minute during its busiest booking periods since the start of this year, while Ryanair said this week that bookings were about 5 per cent higher than at the same time last year, and prices were up “by a low single-digit percentage”.

EasyJet said prices were “well ahead” of the same time last year, while Wizz Air also pointed to strong fares.

Industry optimism extends beyond airlines. Saga said this week that it expected passenger numbers in its travel business to rise 20 per cent this year, while package holiday company On the Beach said the value of bookings in its peak January period was up 27 per cent year on year.

January is one of the busiest holiday booking periods, providing insights on trading for the rest of the year.

“We see positive booking momentum for summer 2024 with travel remaining a priority for consumers,” said easyJet boss Johan Lundgren.

Average air fares across Europe were between 20 and 30 per cent higher over summer 2023 compared with 2019, according to EU data published in October.

Demand for travel has shot up since pandemic restrictions ended but the supply of aircraft remains limited because of problems including delayed deliveries from Boeing and the grounding of some Airbus planes for checks on their engines.

While Ryanair and Wizz Air have both expanded aggressively since 2019, other airlines are keeping their schedules close to, or even below, pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s absolutely supply against demand. People still want to travel and — notwithstanding the cost of living challenges — consumers are prioritising experiences,” said Andrew Lobbenberg, head of European transport research at Barclays.

Analysts at Bernstein said in a recent note that current European airline capacity was “well below its pre-pandemic growth path”, forecasting a 15 to 20 per cent shortfall in seats compared with demand.

“The real issue is that we think there is a lot more demand than what we are able to deliver,” said Váradi.

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