* H1 pretax loss 53 mln stg, ahead of guidance
* Cost control, more business travellers boost H1
* Sees more competition, possible World Cup impact in H2
* Shares fall as much as 6 pct after strong run
(Adds CEO, analyst comments, share price)
By Sarah Young
LONDON, May 13 British low-cost airline easyJet
said a smaller-than-expected first-half loss, helped by tight
cost control and more business passengers, showed it could cope
with growing competition and any disruption to bookings from
this summer's soccer World Cup.
Shares in the group, which have risen around 50 percent in
the past year, dropped as much as 6 percent in early trading, as
some analysts expressed disappointment it had broken a recent
trend of upgrading forecasts.
However, they mostly remained upbeat about a business which
has stolen a march on larger rival Ryanair by
introducing allocated seating and allowing passengers to change
flights in a bid to appeal to business travellers.
"The initial share price reaction shows that the weight of
expectation for easyJet is, unsurprisingly, increasing," said
Hargreaves Lansdown analyst Richard Hunter.
"The shares may be subject to some shorter term profit
taking, although the market consensus of the shares as a "buy"
remains firmly intact."
EasyJet said it expected a 3 percent increase in
flight capacity by competitors this summer and that the soccer
World Cup, due to start in Brazil in June, meant forecasting
passenger behaviour was difficult.
"The booking patterns are quite hard to read. In every
single market people will watch the World Cup and then they will
go away on holiday but they will wait for their team to go out,"
Chief Executive Carolyn McCall told reporters on a call.
Nonetheless, the group said 51 percent of its second-half
seats were already booked and its "ruthless focus on cost" would
ensure it coped well.
EasyJet posted a pretax loss of 53 million pounds ($89
million) for the six months to March 31, a 13 percent
improvement on the same period last year, and ahead of its own
guidance for a loss of between 55 million and 65 million pounds.
The group, like other airlines, traditionally runs at a loss
over the winter when fewer customers fly.
Its improved performance came despite the fact that, unlike
the first-half last year, it did not benefit from the Easter
holiday, which fell in April this year.
However, benign winter weather meant fewer disruptions and
lower de-icing costs, as it delivered 14 million pounds of
annualised savings in the first half, while its number of
business passengers rose 8.5 percent, ahead of overall passenger
growth of 4 percent.
Ryanair, due to report its annual results later in May, has
stepped up its efforts to attract business travellers, saying in
March it was in talks about flying to more convenient airports,
having already introduced allocated seating.
At 0820 GMT, easyJet shares were down 4.3 percent at 1,655
pence, the biggest fall by a European blue-chip stock
, although off an earlier low of 1,626 pence.
($1 = 0.5927 British Pounds)
(Editing by Paul Sandle and Mark Potter)