So competition looks set to hot up at Barcelona's El Prat Airport as Ryanair, as previously speculated, has today announced plans for a base at the Spanish airport. It is to base five aircraft and operate 20 routes from El Prat as of September this year. It marks base 42 for Ryanair, its eighth in Spain and bring it into the centre of the Barcelona market - it already has bases at nearby Reus and Girona. This is highly significant for all players in Barcelona.
For El Prat, which opened a new terminal last year, it marks a major boost for its passenger traffic levels - after it was one of the hardest hit airports in 2009 as its passenger numbers fell almost 10% last year to 27.3 million. This reflected the hard economic hit Spain has taken during the recession and the capacity cuts and consolidation which Barcelona-based budget carriers Clickair and Vueling undertook before ultimately merging last July.
What will the arrivial of Ryanair at Barcelona's main airport means for existing operators at the airport? Currently low-cost carrier Vueling has the largest market share at the airport, while easyJet has continued to expand its operations there and Star Alliance carrier Spanair is this year expanding fast at the airport. I asked Vueling chief executive Alex Cruz during our recent Airline Business cover interview about the competitive environment at Barcelona and about the possible arrival of Ryanair. Here is a quick extract and you can read the full article here.
Yet ironically for a merger born from overcapacity, the new Vueling enters this summer with heightened competition from both easyJet and, in particular, Spanair. The latter, bought by Catalan investors last year, is launching 11 new routes from Barcelona this year. Cruz says there has been a sense of déjà vu recently in weekly commercial meetings. "The [former] Vueling team say they've been there before. But there is also a sense that, and I think this is one of the great advantages of learning from past experiences, the commercial team that comes from Vueling openly feel they underestimated the potential damage the new entrant Clickair would do to them. I think everybody is very conscious that under no circumstances will we underestimate [new competition] this time."
Cruz does not think there is overcapacity yet in Barcelona, but in the long term much will hinge on Spanair's intentions and whether Ryanair emerges as a direct competitor at El Prat, which already operates at two nearby airports. "There is the potential for overcapacity," Cruz acknowledges. "If they [Ryanair] come to Barcelona, then we are ready for them, but the game will surely change. But who is best ready to compete with them? Certainly it is ourselves, with the strength and market share we have. So we will not be running around like a headless chicken." On the Spanair front, he says it is difficult to make any medium- to long-term conclusions, as Spanair remains early in its new approach to Barcelona. "This year they have opened up a number of new routes that are traditional Vueling/Clickair routes, so we are going to be head-to-head on some of those," he says. "We will have to see who does better and who reports profits at the end of this year."
For the Irish budget carrier which has made its business based on flying from secondary airports, El Prat is the second largest airport (behind only Madrid Barajas) in its network of bases - the airport was the 42 busiest by passenger number in 2009 - and shows a further sign of the times (either that Ryanair is increasingly open to operating from primary airports or that primary airports are increasingly keen to attract Ryanair - depending how you view it).