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Ryanair Expands Lead as UK’s Largest Airline as Competitors Pull Back

Jay Shabat
August 24th, 2022 at 12:48 PM EDT

Photo credit:  Flickr / Steve Knight

Ryanair is adding more than a million additional seats to its UK schedule this winter. A move it trumpeted as a relief to travelers in the wake of capacity cuts by other airlines, most importantly British Airways.

The additional seats, Ryanair said in a statement Tuesday, are a “response to BA’s announcement that it will cancel eight percent of its winter schedule (over 10,000 flights) due to staff shortages and capacity cuts at ‘Hopeless Heathrow.’” Heathrow, London’s busiest airport, informed airlines on August 15 that it would extend capacity caps first introduced in June through October 29. Ryanair does not fly from Heathrow, instead primarily serving London’s Stansted airport with small operations at Gatwick and Luton.

Ryanair’s new flights also benefit areas of the UK outside of London, including airports in Birmingham, Edinburgh, and Manchester. In total, the Irish discounter serves 20 UK airports, more than any other airline including British Airways. Other major competitors in the UK shorthaul market include EasyJet, Jet2, and Wizz Air.

According to data from Diio by Cirium, Ryanair’s UK schedule for December is now about 4 percent larger than it was in the same month of 2019, based on total number of seats scheduled. The carrier is offering many new winter routes that did not exist before the pandemic. London Stansted to Vienna and Stockholm, for example.  

Operational woes at London’s airports have gained much attention this summer, leading to long queues, and many flight cancellations and delays. In July, Heathrow airport introduced “temporary capacity limits to improve passenger journeys over the summer getaway.” These limit the facility to 100,000 departing passengers per day. That compares to a daily average of about 125,000 passengers in July 2019, airport data show. During the pandemic, that daily average dipped to around 14,000 passengers in July 2020, and 24,000 passengers in July 2021. According to Heathrow, the caps are having their intended effect, leading to “fewer last-minute cancellations, better punctuality, and shorter waits for bags.” It noted that several other European airports, including Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt, and Gatwick have also put in place “equivalent capacity limits.”  

Gatwick, however, said Monday that its capacity edict would sunset at the end of August as the airport “returns back to usual business operations.” The end of restrictions at Gatwick is likely benefit EasyJet, which as the airport’s largest carrier is scheduled to fly more than half of the seats at Gatwick in the second half of the year, Diio by Cirium data show.

European airport traffic typically spikes in July and August, the two busiest months of the year for leisure travel, before dropping in the fall. Most European airlines depend on summertime profits to offset wintertime losses. That pattern even holds true for Ryanair, one of the most profitable airlines in the world. In 2019, for example, it collectively lost roughly $150 million at the operating level during from October through March. But it earned $1.4 billion in profits between April and September. Airlines were thus frustrated that airports could not accommodate all the demand they had this summer, a crucial time for amassing as much profit as possible to cover off-peak losses.

Though London Stansted is Ryanair’s single busiest airport, the UK is not its largest country market. That distinction belongs to Italy, where the low-cost carrier has spent years grabbing market share from the long-troubled Italian carrier Alitalia. Last year, Alitalia was replaced by ITA, which the Italian government is in the process of selling. Overall for its full fiscal year that ends in March, Ryanair expects to transport nearly 167 million passengers this year. The airline said, furthermore, that its UK winter schedule this year will be its largest ever.   


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