Kevin O'Toole/LONDON

A mixed set of financial results from Debonair, Ryanair and Virgin Express - their first since seeking stock-market listings earlier this year - has left analysts looking for signs of a shake-out in Europe's low-cost airline market.

Veteran low-cost challenger Ryanair posted a robust set of results for the first six months of its financial year to September. Net profits were up by 50% to IR£18.6 million ($28 million), despite expanding operations by around one-third, including the opening of five new routes, and a "significant" pay increase for its staff.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary says that the airline set a record in August, carrying more than 400,000 passengers, adding that load factors on the new routes had climbed to above 75%within four months of launch.

He promises that expansion will continue over the second half of the year as another four aircraft join the 16-strong Boeing 737 fleet. To help stimulate off-peak traffic across the network, the carrier has launched what could be Europe's lowest-ever one-way fare of IR£19.

Debonair, also reporting for the first half to September following its launch on Europe's EASDAQ stock exchange, showed a loss of £5.5 million ($9 million) on sales of just under £18 million. That follows a loss of £15.7 million in its 1996/7 start-up year.

Chairman Franco Mancassola blames the figures on a range of problems, including late arrival of its sixth and seventh British Aerospace 146s.

Yields were also "below expectations" because of the strength of sterling and an initial lack of action to "segment business and leisure traffic". Mancassola adds that yields rose by 17% in the second quarter and have continued to improve.

He says that unit costs are below plan at around 4.3p per available seat kilometre (ASK) - ó11.6 per mile - over the six months, and adds that Debonair showed a £1.1 million operating profit for the half.

Better results have come from Virgin Express, which completed its $96 million dual US and Belgium listings on 13 November. A highly profitable September quarter helped towards net profits of BFr364 million ($10 million) for the first nine months of the year. Sales mushroomed by 40% to BFr7 billion, with all of the growth coming from scheduled services, which has been the main drive for Virgin since it took over the carrier from EBA in 1996.

Virgin's load factors on the scheduled routes have averaged above 70%, while yields edged up by nearly 9% to BF3.2/ASK.

Analysts believe that it is still too soon to say how the market will shake out. "In conditions like this, everyone should show profits,"says Chris Tarry at investment bank Dresdener Kleinwort Benson. "Since deregulation in the USA, the failure rate for start-ups has been around 80%," he warns.

Source: Flight International