Ryanair's outspoken chief executive, Michael O'Leary, has outlined his plans to dominate European skies and fly 120 million passengers a year as rival airlines go bust and flag carriers cut their short-haul operations to save money.
Ryanair at present flies 79 million passengers a year, which represents 12 per cent of Europe's short-haul air travel market. But Mr O'Leary wants more, partly by gobbling up its domestic rival Aer Lingus. Ryanair's third takeover approach for the airline, worth almost €700m (£560m), is currently being scrutinised by European regulators.
Mr O'Leary reckons the closure of airlines this summer, including bmibaby, will boost demand. "Legacy carriers including Air France-KLM, IAG [the owner of British Airways], Lufthansa, SAS and Air Berlin [are also] significantly contracting their short-haul operations," he said. "Charter airlines such as Thomas Cook are cutting fleet sizes. It's a major opportunity for Ryanair to grow to 120 million passengers per annum over the next 10 years."
European Commission regulators will rule on the Ryanair-Aer Lingus tie-up by February, but Mr O'Leary is already fearful. Asked if he was considering any sweeteners for the regulators, he responded: "No, you don't want to sweeten regulators, you want to shoot them."
He added: "If it's assessed on the same basis as BA's takeover of BMI and we are treated fairly by Europe, the deal will be approved. Why can the number one and two airlines at Europe's most congested airport [Heathrow] be allowed to merge, while in Ireland – a far smaller market – the number one and two in the market try to do the same and find it so difficult? Why is there one policy for flag carriers of Europe and another for Ryanair?"
The airline has raised its annual profit expectations by 20 per cent after posting a 9 per cent increase in pre-tax profit to €679m for the first half of 2012 – mainly thanks to a post-Olympics rush for outbound flights.