Daily Memo: Europe Counts Its 2023 Airline Casualties So Far

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At just a month into 2023, two European carriers—Flybe and Flyr—have already collapsed. 

Is the much predicted and much delayed pandemic-driven wave of airline casualties finally here? With a Lufthansa deal to buy a minority stake in ITA finally moving forward and two airline collapses within a matter of days, it certainly seems as if it may be. 

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary believes so, according to Reuters: “We are definitely, post-COVID, entering a four- or five-year period of consolidation,” O’Leary said Feb. 1. 

His comments came the same day that Norwegian LCC Flyr grounded flights and filed for bankruptcy. The airline had launched just over a year and a half earlier in June 2021 and operated a fleet of six Boeing 737-8s and six 737-800s to domestic and European destinations. 

But a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and weak domestic demand were too much for the carrier, which struggled to withstand a backdrop of high oil prices and high inflation that has been making life difficult for all European airlines. 

In late 2022 the airline set out a plan to slash costs by furloughing half its workforce and through a wet-lease deal. But that plan fell through after it failed to secure the necessary funding and ultimately Flyr’s efforts were not enough to save the airline. 

Flyr’s collapse came just days after that of Flybe, whose latest incarnation, after an April 2022 relaunch, lasted less than a year. The UK regional airline went into administration Jan. 28. The administrator of the carrier, which operated a fleet of eight De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 aircraft, cited the late delivery of 17 aircraft needed for its schedule, severely compromising its capacity and ability to remain competitive, as one of the factors leading to its demise. 

At the other end of the European spectrum, the region’s strong and growing LCCs have been sounding an optimistic note as they unveiled their latest financial results over the past few days. EasyJet said it was on a path back to full-year profit and highlighted strong booking trends while Wizz Air reported a solid fare environment. Ryanair, meanwhile, said it operated 112% of its pre-pandemic capacity in the first nine months of 2023.

But the Dublin-based LCC nevertheless has one thing in common with Flybe—concerns over whether it will have enough aircraft capacity to keep up with its growth plans, albeit on a different scale. 

Ryanair on Jan. 30 posted a net profit of €211 million ($230 million) for the three months to end December and highlighted growing market share in many markets along with a “robust” demand outlook. But the airline once again noted the question mark over deliveries of its 737-8200s. 

Ryanair received 11 new 737-8200s during the last three months of 2022, taking the number to 84 in an overall fleet of 523 aircraft. The budget carrier has announced over 230 new routes for its fiscal 2024, which runs from April 2023 to March 2024, making for a total of 2,450 routes with 3,200 daily flights. 

Ryanair is not planning to start retiring its older 737-800s until 2026, saying current growth opportunities mean it does not make sense to retire them yet, Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary told Aviation Daily in a recent interview.

But the airline is basing its growth plan for fiscal 2024 on having 124 737 MAXs in its fleet for the peak summer 2023 season “although there is a risk (despite recent Boeing production improvements) that some of our ... deliveries could slip,” Ryanair said. 

It may be frustrated that fleet growth cannot go faster, but Ryanair is firmly in the camp of European airlines that seem to have put the pandemic firmly behind them, posting strong market share gains, including an increase in Italy from 26% to 40% and confirming a recently raised profit outlook for its current fiscal year, which ends in March. 

If O’Leary’s consolidation prediction turns out to be correct, the gap between those strong performers and the weaker carriers may become even more evident in the coming months.

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.