Ryanair took record numbers of bookings in January, the budget airline has announced, passing 2m sales in a weekend for the first time.
Its chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said there was no sign of a slowdown in demand despite the economic uncertainty.
Ryanair is set to continue its aggressive post-Covid expansion, offering about 10% more seats in the UK this summer compared with 2022.
O’Leary said passenger numbers would grow to 168 million in the year to March 2023 and 185 million the following year, adding: “Summer looks very strong and fares are rising.”
He said there would be “high single-digit” percentage increases in fares for a second year, the fastest pace he could remember.
The rises were partly down to high fuel costs, O’Leary said, but mostly due to strong demand for plane seats and a lack of capacity in the market, with rivals yet to restore schedules to pre-Covid levels.
While many expected high inflation and economic sluggishness to dampen consumer demand, O’Leary said: “We see no sign of it at the moment. There’s lots of spending going on out there. We’ve gone through two weeks of record bookings after Christmas. People are worried prices might rise in summer, which I think they will, and want to get in there early.”
Summer fares in Europe would also rise, he added, due to the strong dollar pushing up the cost of jet fuel while bringing in more US tourists.
The Ryanair boss said booking levels had been particularly remarkable in a period without any “seat sales” or price promotion. “I don’t think you’re going to see £9.99 fares for a year or two while oil prices are high.”
The airline faces a 35% increase in its fuel bill, having hedged about 50% of its requirements at $92 (£75) a barrel.
In the UK, Ryanair is launching six new routes from London Stansted including three domestic services, to Edinburgh, Belfast, and Newquay in Cornwall, and increasing frequencies on existing routes. O’Leary said it would take the number of new routes year-on-year to 50 across the UK.
He said the change in schedules was “an immediate response” to the change in air passenger duty, in which tax was halved on UK domestic flights.
Asked if he was concerned about the environmental impact of more domestic flights, O’Leary said: “Not in the least.”
He said Ryanair was operating the flights on the most efficient aircraft, with 57 new Boeing 737 Max aircraft due to be based in the UK by summer. O’Leary said: “Our passengers are paying a disproportionate burden of environmental taxation, all of which is being levied on short-haul flights in Europe, which account for less than 45% of CO2 emissions.
“The most polluting flights, long-haul, remain strangely exempt … So no, I don’t feel any concern about the environment because we’re displacing older aircraft.”
O’Leary said the airline planned to keep expanding, describing the post-Covid situation as potentially “the biggest growth opportunity I have seen for the last 20 years”.
He said the pandemic would have “dramatically accelerated the consolidation process in Europe,” predicting rival easyJet would end up swallowed by IAG or Air France.
Rising interest rates would hurt competitors who were leasing planes rather than buying them, and deter venture capital from backing new airline launches, he added.