Lufthansa usurps Ryanair to regain place as Europe's biggest airline

BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Germany's Lufthansa LHAG.DE has overhauled Ryanair to retake the crown as Europe's largest airline by passenger numbers after the Irish budget carrier was forced to cut thousands of flights because of pilot rostering problems.

A plane by Lufthansa is seen next to a Lufthansa flag at the international airport in Munich, Germany, January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

The Lufthansa group as a whole carried 130 million passengers last year, it said on Wednesday. The equivalent figure from Ryanair was 129 million, meaning Ryanair RYA.I slips behind Lufthansa after overtaking it in 2016.

Lufthansa has grown rapidly, having taken over Brussels Airlines at the end of 2016 and is aiming to grow its budget brand Eurowings to become Europe’s third largest point-to-point carrier.

The group, which also includes Swiss and Austrian Airlines, has also benefited from the collapse of German rival Air Berlin in the latter part of 2017. Air Berlin, Germany’s second largest carrier, ceased flying in October.

Ryanair, meanwhile, has curbed its growth plans after a pilot rostering issue left it without enough standby pilots to fly its planes, forcing it to cancel 20,000 flights.

“Next year, as we grow to 140 million passengers, we expect to overtake Lufthansa again, unless they acquire some other airline to boost their figures,” Ryanair said in an e-mailed statement.

Ryanair and Lufthansa were both ahead of rival IAG ICAG.L, the parent company of British Airways and Iberia, which carried 104.8 million people in 2017, an increase of 4 percent.

Franco-Dutch Air France-KLM AIRF.PA reported a 5.6 percent rise in group passenger numbers to 98.7 million, helped by its low-cost carrier Transavia.

Lufthansa was already the largest European airline in terms of distance, or revenue passenger kilometers (RPK), as it operates flights over both long and short distances, while Ryanair flies only short-haul routes.

Most airlines use RPK as their main measure of traffic, however Ryanair does not provide this in its monthly updates.

Reporting by Victoria Bryan and Maria Sheahan; Editing by Keith Weir and Alexander Smith