Thursday, 8 June 2023

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The price of flying will keep rising, even on Ryanair

The price of flying will keep rising, even on Ryanair

The emptiest aircraft on which I ever flew was an All Nippon Airways flight from Tokyo to London in June 2020 amid the pandemic. It was a Boeing 777-300 with about 250 passenger seats, of which four were filled: in airline lingo, it had a load factor of less than 2 per cent.

We crossed continents like a ghost flight, the attendants devotedly sticking to their usual in-flight routines and walking by the empty rows of seats to confirm that nothing was amiss. Flight ANA-211 was a fragile link between Japan and the UK in the days when many passenger flights stopped: I booked at the last minute and the tickets were memorably cheap.

Flights are now much fuller, and fares higher. When I returned to Japan earlier this year, direct fares had doubled in price and I connected in Hong Kong to economise. The same is true of short-haul flights as people book up eagerly for summer holidays: Ryanair, now Europe’s biggest airline, this week reported strong bookings, and easyJet has done the same.

With stronger demand and higher jet fuel costs have come stiffer prices. Ryanair carried 16mn passengers in April — more than the same month in 2019 — and its aircraft were 94 per cent full. Its fares have risen by 10 per cent on pre-Covid levels and the carrier’s famous €9.99 fares (before paying for bags and better seats) are a fading memory.

Airlines are notoriously cyclical and prone to losing money: the industry collectively lost $138bn in the annus horribilis of 2020, when I took the ghost flight to London. Even in good times, margins are tight. Prices have fallen in real terms for decades because they keep on buying new aircraft (Ryanair has ordered up to 300 737-Max 10s from Boeing) and trying to fill them.

Despite this, I believe the industry’s warnings that we will have to pay more to fly: “We are in an entirely different world where air fares are rising,” one executive told the FT this week. Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, may keep squeezing rivals with his motto that “lowest cost wins” but it will not feel like that for the customer.

With restrictions lifted, people want to fly again: “Short-haul flying has roared back to life because of pent-up demand,” says Frankie O’Connell, reader in air transport at the University of Surrey. They must contend with fewer, stronger carriers: Ryanair’s flights were about 80 per cent full a decade ago, but seats are now scarcer.

Not only can such airlines charge more; they will soon have…

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