Ryanair, the budget airline, is to scrap its flights from Stansted to Brest in France at the end of this month, in a move which is likely to anger Britons who have bought holiday homes near the airport and worry others who have homes elsewhere in France.
The Irish carrier yesterday confirmed it would end all flights to Brest from 28 April, making it the third French route to be axed this year.
Since acquiring its rival Buzz last year, Ryanair has shut half its European routes.Ryanair said it had decided to close the Brest route, which it started to operate in May last year, because it was not attracting enough passengers. "This is part of our ongoing review of our destinations. Brest underperformed the average Ryanair load factor, which this year is 81 per cent," a spokesman said.
The load factor is a key gauge of profitability in the airline industry, measuring the number of passengers as a proportion of seats available.
The decision took passengers by surprise. Howard Stainsby, who owns a home in north-west France, said: "Whenever my wife and I have used it, and that has not been at the height of the season, it has had a reasonable load. It is also very strange pulling it now, just as it would be about to pick-up customers."
Mr Stainsby said that his wife, who was booked on a flight from Brest in June had been offered a flight instead from Dinard, which is 136 miles east.
Those with properties near Brest have the alternative of going by ferry. But those who have rushed to take advantage of attractive house prices in more southern areas of the country, on the basis that they could be accessed cheaply by budget airlines, will be concerned that Ryanair might axe more routes.
The company said it was not planning to make more cuts. But observers believe a string of French destinations could be vulnerable.This is because many French airports, which are state-owned, could be affected by a ruling by the European Commission that Ryanair had received illegal subsidies from the local authorities governing Charleroi airport, near Brussels. The decision does not affect privately-owned airports.
The Commission has ordered Ryanair to hand over £3m - about a third of the £9m it was given from 2001 to encourage it to fly to Charleroi.
Ryanair denied the closure of the Brest route was connected to the Commission's decision. But its chief executive, Michael O'Leary, has warned that the move might lead to the closure of loss-making routes and to a rise in prices.
Separately, British Airways and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines announced upbeat passenger numbers for March, saying they have been boosted by decisions to slash fares.
They added that they have benefited from economic recovery and from the fact that numbers a year earlier were subdued by the Iraq war and the outbreak of Sars.
BA said traffic rose 12.7 per cent in March, the eleventh consecutive monthly gain. KLM said passenger traffic rose 8 per cent from a year earlier.
BA said its overall load factor rose 4.6 per cent from a year earlier to 70.3 per cent.