EasyJet fights back in low-cost airline battle - but is Ryanair's charm-offensive giving it the edge?

Billy Ehrenberg
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Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary went on a PR mission in 2013 to improve customers’ opinion of his airline (Source: Getty)

Is Ryanair’s PR drive giving it the edge over EasyJet? After Ryanair revealed it carried 28 per cent more passengers in March than the same month last year, Easyjet’s solid growth figures paled by comparison.

The figures

EasyJet carried 5.5m passengers in March, compared to 5.1m during the same month last year, a rise of 7.5 per cent. This rise comes after a 6.1 per cent jump in February and a very small rise in January, which accounted for less than a tenth of one per cent. The essentially flat figures were the first time EasyJet had failed to see an increase in passengers in three years.

Why it’s interesting

EasyJet may have been busy bumping out healthy numbers, but Ryanair is soaring. March’s 28 per cent rise in passengers came after February traffic grew by 29 per cent year on year and January’s growth was faster still at 30 per cent.

What is more, Ryanair isn’t growing from a lower base: in the 12 months to the end of February 2015 it flew 89.1m passengers, while EasyJet flew 65.6m passengers.

Where EasyJet does have a slight edge is in load factor – the number of possible seats filled. For the 12 months to the end of February the figure was 90.8 per cent for EasyJet and three percentage points lower at 87 per cent for Ryanair, meaning the former is more efficient at selling its available seats.

EasyJet’s load factor hit 92.6 per cent in March, while Ryanair’s hit 90 per cent, a 10 percentage point increase on last March’s figure.

Aer Lingus gets in on the fun

Aer Lingus, which is part-owned by Ryanair but a takeover target for IAG, also reported its passenger numbers growing healthily: they grew 2.3 per cent year-on-year in March, after a 0.9 per cent decline in February. The decline was reversed largely due to a jump in long-haul flights – they increased 25 per cent to 94,000 – and this will be particularly pleasing. IAG is known to admire Aer Lingus’s long-haul routes to North America from Dublin.

Ryanair has been ordered to cut its stake from 28.5 per cent to just five per cent.

Oil or PR?

It's likely oil prices were a factor in the increases for all these airlines: the price of a barrel of Brent crude, the international benchmark, has almost halved since last March, from $111.20 in 2014 to a low of $53.94 last month.

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, who has often seemed somewhat blunt in his communications, went on a PR mission in 2013 to improve customers’ opinion of his airline. The jumps in passenger numbers could be down to the drive – which has included cutting baggage and boarding card fees.

In short

Low oil prices mean great bargains for customers, and the rising percentages of filled seats reflect the global crude trends. The battle is heating up, and passengers can only win as airlines fight for low-cost air superiority.

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