There is no doubting which airline group was the biggest in Europe this year. The Lufthansa group carried 96m passengers to the end of November and will finish the year with something approaching last year’s total of 106m.
The second biggest, and the biggest standalone, will be Ireland’s airline, Ryanair, who reported passenger numbers for 2012 of 79.6m, up 4pc on the year before. The figures are phenomenal for an airline that started with a 15-seater Bandeirante aircraft from Waterford to Luton in 1985.
Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary doesn’t believe the airline has reached its full potential yet. But he faces a big problem if his airline is to grow further, he has run out of aircraft.
“There is still so much growth within the European union countries,” he told Travel Extra late last year, “Ryanair can double in the next ten years.”
“Ryanair’s growth is continuing. It is just that the percentages get smaller as the base gets bigger. One of the reasons we are only growing by 5pc is that we sit 80 aircraft on the ground for the winter.”
The figures came just days after Ryanair took delivery of the last two aircraft of their Boeing 737-800 deal. Ryanair is now in the market for 200 new aircraft.
O’Leary says that the rate of further growth depends on when the next aircraft comes. “We will carry 83-84m passengers next year based on the current aircraft deliveries. Then we need another aircraft delivery.”
“Prices of aircraft have not come down yet but this is a fluid situation. We are continuing the dialogue with Boeing and continuing the dialogue with Comac. Boeing have plenty of availability in the order book. We are in the early stages of talks to see if we can reach an agreement on price.” Ryanair is looking for deliveries in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the year that Boeing’s upgraded 737 Max jetliner is due to enter service.
“There is no dialogue with Airbus but again if we got hold of Aer Lingus we would want to talk to Airbus about immediate aircraft orders for Aer Lingus.”
This week in Gothenburg he said that a new order was possible before the end of 2013, to grow passenger numbers to 120m. He said the long term plan is to assemble a fleet of 500 aircraft.
“We are talking to 60 new airports we do not fly to it, some in Israel, we are inundated with requests and airport deals at the moment. We are frankly less enthused by Russia, Ukraine and those countries at the moment.”
If Michael O’Leary gets his way with the EU next February he would control a group that had 89.3m passengers, within striking distance of Lufthansa.
Aer Lingus carried 9.7m passengers in 2012, up 1.5pc from 9.51m. Short haul operations were up 0.7pc, and long haul was up 9.4pc after the big capacity cuts of 2010-1.
Aer Lingus numbers are being driven by transfer traffic. Aer Lingus’ Annual Report 2011 says that 21pc of passenger revenues are now generated from passengers connecting from inter-airline carriers.
On trans-Atlantic services 30pc of passengers are transfer customers, about 300,000 passengers.
That includes transfers from other airlines onto Aer Lingus to the USA, from Aer Lingus to its own services from Europe and to the UK via Dublin.
Aer Lingus have said that over 47pc of their passenger bookings are from outside Ireland.
Have Lufthansa anything to fear from Ryanair? Not yet. But O’Leary says he would grow Aer Lingus numbers to 15m. Then the game would commence.
In the meantime Air France are stalking Alitalia once more. It will be an interesting year.