Ryanair believes it will be carrying more than 200 million passengers a year by 2024 as rivals retrench and it pursues growth in eastern and central Europe.
Profits at the Irish carrier grew 7 per cent to €1.17 billion in the six months to September 30th, the first half of its financial year, while revenue rose 2 per cent to €4.13 billion.
Chief executive Michael O’Leary said strengthened growth required Ryanair to “raise our long-term traffic forecast by over 10 per cent from 180 million to over 200 million passengers per annum by March 2024”.
The airline expects to fly more than 119 million passengers in its current financial year, and confirmed on Monday that it sold 65 million seats in the first half of that period.
Mr O'Leary noted that competitors were cutting back in markets such as Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain, prompting primary airports to offer the carrier incentives to step in and take their place.
He added that by the end of 2016, Ryanair would fly to 105 primary and 95 secondary airports, switching the balance between the two for the first time.
Chief commercial officer David O’Brien pointed out that these trends were giving Ryanair the scope to continue expanding in Germany, where it has 8 per cent market share, and “underserved” areas in Europe.
“If you look across eastern Europe, it has the potential to deliver huge opportunities for growth,” he said.
Mr O'Brien added that the Irish carrier would account for 66 per cent of this winter's growth in Bulgaria, where it has opened a base in the capital, Sofia.
It is opening two new bases in Germany this winter, Hamburg and Nuremburg, and three more in eastern Europe: Bucharest in Romania, Prague in the Czech Republic and Vilnius in Lithuania.
The airline expects that sales of ancillaries such as reserved seats, fast-track services and business and leisure plus extras will account for 30 per cent of revenue by March 2020.
Mr O’Brien said the company will make membership of “My Ryanair” automatic for all bookings from January, which should bring its numbers to more than 25 million by the end of March.
The company is continuing with plans to use its digital outlets to sell hotel rooms and other travel services to its customers, displacing online agencies. Its website had 46 million visitors in September, making it number one in its industry, ahead of Southwest Airlines in the United States.
Ryanair will buy back up to €550 million of shares over the four months to February 2017. It will split this equally between the American depositary receipts held by US stockholders and ordinary shares to comply with rules capping non-EU ownership of European airlines at less than 50 per cent.
Mr O’Leary called the first-half performance “creditable” in light of tough conditions that featured terror attacks, air-traffic control strikes and weakened sterling.
He predicted that weaker air fares and Brexit uncertainty would dominate the airline’s second half. He said it remained “comfortable” with revised forecasts that it would make €1.3 billion to €1.35 billion in this financial year.