Ryanair warned that it would carry even fewer passengers than forecast this year after slashing its winter flight schedules in response to the new wave of lockdowns and travel restrictions in the UK and Europe.
The low-cost carrier said it expected to run few, if any, flights to and from the UK and Ireland from the end of January until restrictions on movements were eased.
As a result, Ryanair has revised down its passenger forecast for the year to March, from below 35m to between 26m to 30m passengers — less than a fifth of the 149m it carried in the previous financial year.
The airline also called on the British and Irish governments to speed up their vaccination programmes and said “vaccinations rather than lockdowns is the way out of this Covid-19 crisis”.
Changes illustrate how the winter season is turning out to be even worse than expected for Europe’s airlines, despite Ryanair’s expectation that reductions will not hit profitability as the flights were lossmaking.
The group’s passenger numbers in January are expected to fall to under 1.25m passengers, and then dip to 500,000 in February and March — the lowest since air travel all but stopped last spring.
In the UK, Boris Johnson’s government ordered its third national lockdown since March this week following a rapid rise in coronavirus infections.
The prime minister has promised to review the measures, which include a travel ban for non-essential trips, in mid-February.
Ireland tightened its lockdown after Christmas, including a ban on people entering from the UK that ends at midnight on Friday.
EasyJet and British Airways also plan to cut their flight schedules in response to the new lockdowns, while Ryanair’s aggressive Hungarian rival Wizz Air is also reviewing its plans.
Analysts have warned that the disruption is weighing on bookings for the spring and summer season, which are essential to get cash into businesses that have been bleeding money for the best part of a year.
“Pre-booking activity for the spring and summer 2021 season is just not there. This will defer the usual cash inflows expected by the industry at this time of the year,” aviation analysts at Goodbody said.
Still, Ryanair is regarded as well-placed to ride out the chaos given its strong balance sheet and flexible business model.
Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, told the FT last month he sees opportunities as his rivals flounder, and that he expects bookings to pick up once vaccines are rolled out more thoroughly.
“In summary, short-term weakness for Ryanair and the sector but positive for Ryanair in terms of its market share ambitions over the next 12 months,” Goodbody said.
Shares in Ryanair, easyJet and BA owner IAG all fell 3 per cent by mid-morning on Thursday.