<p>Ryanair has seen passenger numbers improve as restrictions eased (Niall Carson/PA)</p>

Ryanair has seen passenger numbers improve as restrictions eased (Niall Carson/PA)

Ryanair’s sky grab: Europe’s biggest budget airline launches 250 new routes this winter

Plane Talk: Irish carrier is preparing to dominate the continent

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 03 November 2021 08:52

You might recall the autumn of 2017, when Ryanair’s pilot rosters were royally messed up and the airline cancelled hundreds of flights.

Evidently, the problem has been fixed because Europe’s biggest budget airline is in an expansive mood. Even though Ryanair’s passenger numbers are still less than half the pre-pandemic figures, the Irish carrier is launching more than 250 new routes this winter – including 33 to and from the UK.

The schedule analyst Ralph Anker, editor of the Anker Report, has done the heavy lifting with data from Cirium to reveal the scale of the expansion – which involves 116 airports in 34 countries.

The highest number of routes for a single airport (22) goes to Stockholm Arlanda, yet another case of a premier league hub welcoming in Ryanair at the expense of a secondary airport – in this case, Skavsta.

Next is Agadir in Morocco with 20, though how many will survive the bizarre decision by the government in Rabat to ban flights from Germany, the Netherlands and the UK remains to be seen.

Lisbon is blossoming with 16 new routes, as is Riga; in winter, I prefer to head south rather than aim for the Baltic. None of the top 18 airports is in the UK, but British travellers will benefit from a total of 33 new routes.

Birmingham prospers the most, with new links to Bucharest and Budapest (I fear some travellers will end up in the wrong eastern European capital), as well as Vilnius and Wroclaw in the east and Bergamo and Turin in the south.

Bristol passengers will be glad of links to Madrid and Barcelona. The latter link is in competition with easyJet, and booking just 24 hours ahead I can see a fare of only £10. And even on Christmas Eve, when you would expect fares to soar, a one-way hop is just £69 (compared with almost £50 more on Ryanair from Stansted). So what is Ryanair playing at?

European domination, that’s what. When the airline announced its half-year results on Monday morning, covering the summer months from April to September, the headline figure was a loss of £40m – with fewer than half the passengers than the same stretch in 2019.

Add in that the average Boeing 737 had 40 empty seats, compared with seven or eight in the last sensible summer, and you can understand why Ryanair lost £1 for every passenger it flew at a time when it previously made a billion pounds in profit.

The airline will continue to cut fares to whatever level it needs to sell more seats, as part of its consistent “yield passive, load-factor active” strategy. That seems to be working in October, when the average flight had 30 empty seats.

As more deliveries of the Boeing 737 Max arrive, the number of seats will rise. Even though the plane is exactly the same size as the older 800 aircraft, it squeezes in eight more passengers.

That may present a short-term challenge, but Ryanair has its eye on the prize of operating far more flights than any other European airline, with increasing strength in key airports including Rome and Vienna, as well as Stockholm.

“I struggle to see how a second low-cost carrier can survive,” said Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, at World Travel Market – apparently dismissing the prospects of easyJet and Wizz Air. He knows, though, that they could yet combine to take on Ryanair. And that is why he wants his airline to grow swiftly to an unassailable scale.

Even while aviation is so badly bruised, these are exciting times – especially for bargain-seeking passengers.

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