UPDATE 4-Austerity to snuff out Ryanair's profit growth run

Mon May 21, 2012 11:52am EDT

* Irish airline beats forecasts with 25 pct 2012 profit surge

* Warns profit to slump by up to 20 pct in coming year

* CEO says fare hikes won't compensate for higher fuel

* Announces second-ever dividend of 483 mln eur

* Shares up 0.4 percent

By Conor Humphries

DUBLIN, May 21 (Reuters) - Ryanair, Europe's biggest budget airline, said high fuel costs and a worsening economic outlook in Europe meant profit would slip by up to 20 percent in 2012/13, the first fall in four years.

The Dublin-based airline has in the past welcomed recessions, saying its fares attract consumers from higher-cost rivals when money is tight.

Chief executive Michael O'Leary said on Monday he did not know what to expect from the coming winter, and the company's run of annual profit growth of at least 25 percent since 2009 was likely to end.

"There is an extreme nervousness, economic uncertainty in Europe, currency concerns, fiscal concerns," he told analysts on a conference call. "It just feels like everyone is getting more nervous at the moment."

"If we were guiding a blue sky scenario with rising fares into next winter, we would be nuts," he said.

Net profit reached 503 million euros ($640 million) for the year to March, up 25 percent and compared with a forecast of 491 million in a Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S poll.

The airline said worsening economic conditions in Europe and stubbornly high fuel costs would cut its profit to between 400 million and 440 million euros in 2013, making it the first year since 2009 that profit has fallen.

The airline is being "a little bit conservative" in its outlook due to poor visibility about its performance in the winter, O'Leary told analysts. The outlook was more likely to be upgraded than downgraded, he said.

After an early fall, its shares were up 0.4 percent by 1520 GMT, in line with the broader Irish market.

"The market got a bit of a jolt when they saw the guidance, but the conference call was a bit more upbeat," said a Dublin-based trader.

FARE GROWTH TO SLOW

The airline, which has a lower cost base than many of its competitors, raised fares 16 percent over the year to help offset a fuel bill that was 30 percent higher.

But it said it would be unable to pass on an additional 320 million euro hike in fuel costs expected in the coming year.

"There is a poor environment. It is the fourth year of this, and repeating (fare growth of) 16 percent is not going to happen," said Chief Financial Officer Howard Millar. He added fares would likely rise by closer to 3 percent.

Ryanair is not as worried about the fallout from Greece's current political crisis as the fact that the euro zone is suffering its fourth year of poor economic performance, he said.

"Greece is very small for us ... We would be more concerned about places like Spain, its high unemployment and plans to raise taxes," he said.

Ryanair confirmed it would pay out 483 million euros ($615 million) to shareholders in November, part of the 2013 financial year, in just its second dividend payout since floating in 1997.

It will then skip a year before considering another dividend in the 2015 financial year, O'Leary said.

Ryanair said traffic would grow by 5 percent for the second year in a row to reach 79 million in the year to March 2013.

Ryanair's outlook is more bearish than British peer EasyJet this month said it expected revenue to rise in the six months to September as business travellers help it to overcome higher fares.

Higher cost rivals Air France-KLM and Lufthansa this month both reported results battered by the global economic slowdown and sky-high jet fuel prices.