Strong growth at its new Austrian unit Lauda helped low-cost carrier Ryanair reclaim its position as the biggest European airline group by passenger numbers in 2019, though overall growth among leading operators in the region lagged that of previous years.

Ryanair increased passenger numbers by more than 9% to reach 152.4 million for the calendar year. That includes more than 6 million passengers at Lauda, the subsidiary unit it established after fully acquiring Laudamotion in early 2019. The latter unit was itself established out of the assets of collapsed leisure carrier Niki.

This growth helped Ryanair move back ahead of Europe’s second biggest airline group, Lufthansa, in terms of passenger numbers.

Ryanair has long been the biggest European operator at an individual level in terms of passenger numbers, but had still lagged Lufthansa Group as a whole until 2016. But the operational problems that prompted Ryanair to cancel a wave of flights in 2017 and Lufthansa’s rapid expansion of its Eurowings unit following the collapse of Air Berlin had seen Lufthansa regain the mantle of Europe’s biggest airline group.

As Ryanair only operates short-haul flights, Lufthansa remains Europe’s biggest airline group in terms of RPK traffic. Air France-KLM, IAG, Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot are also bigger than Ryanair as measured by that metric.

Leading European airline groups by passenger numbers: 2019

Rank  Airline group                 2019 pax      Change v 2018RPK (m)       Load factor  
1 Ryanair Group 152.4m 9.0% 142,000 96.0%
  Ryanair (est) 146.3m      
  Laudamotion 6.1m      
2 Lufthansa Group 145.2m 2.3% 296,511 82.5%
  Lufthansa 71.3m 2.0% 168,085 82.3%
  Eurowings 38.2m -0.2% 52,529 82.2%
  Swiss 21.6m 5.7% 53,120 83.9%
  Austrian 14.7m 5.1% 23,050 80.8%
3 IAG 118.3m 4.7% 285,745 84.6%
  British Airways 47.7m 1.6% 155,580 83.6%
  Vueling 34.6m 6.0% 33,410 86.9%
  Iberia 22.5m 7.2% 73,354 87.2%
  Aer Lingus 11.7m 2.4% 24,753 81.8%
  Level 1.8m   9,543 83.9%
4 Air France-KLM 104.2m 2.7% 293,802 88.4%
  Air France 52.5m 2.1% 154,024 86.9%
  KLM 35.1m 2.7% 109,476 89.4%
  Transavia 16.6m 4.8% 30,303 92.2%
5 EasyJet 96.1m 8.7% 107,741 92.8%
6 Turkish Airlines 74.3m -1.1% 153,200 81.6%
7 Aeroflot Group (est) 61.0m 10.0%    
  Aeroflot  37.2m 4.1%    
  Rossiya 11.6m 4.0%    
  Pobeda 10.3m 43.0%    
8 Wizz Air 42.5m 16.2% 65,172 93.6%
9 Norwegian 36.3m -3.0% 86,706 86.6%
10 Pegasus Airlines (est) 30.0m -1.0%    
Other European airlines to report 2019 passenger numbers
 Airline group2019 paxChange v 2018  
  SAS 28.5m -1.2%    
  Alitalia 21.3m -0.9%    
  TAP Air Portugal 17.0m 8.0%    
  Aegean Airlines 15.0m 7.0%    
  Finnair 14.7m 10.3%    
  S7 14.0m 21.0%    
  Air Europa 13.0m 10.0%    
  Ural Air 9.6m 7.0%    
  Volotea (est) 7.8m 16.0%    
  Air Baltic 5.0m 22.0%    

Source: FlightGlobal analysis of preliminary data released by airlines/regulators. Estimates made based on year-to-date traffic data

Alongside Ryanair’s own expansion, the change at the top also reflects a moderation in capacity growth at Lufthansa during 2019. Passenger numbers across the latter group climbed 2.3% to reach 145.2 million. That in part was a consequence of the German’s group’s decision to put more redundancy into its schedules after the operational headaches experienced in Europe during the summer of 2018 as a result of air service disruption.

Notably, passenger numbers were down at its low-cost arm Eurowings. That reflected reorganisation at the latter after a challenging 2018 in which Eurowings grew rapidly with absorption of former Air Berlin assets. Network operators Austrian Airlines and Swiss led growth among Lufthansa group carriers last year.

IAG is Europe’s third biggest airline group by passenger numbers. The British Airways parent recorded growth of 4.7% to 118.3 million. Growth was led by Spanish carriers Iberia and Vueling. The addition of another Spanish carrier, Air Europa, which it struck a deal to acquire last year, would have taken passenger numbers over the 130 million mark.

IAG also detailed full-year traffic figures for its low-cost unit Level for the first time. The operator carried 1.8 million passengers in 2019 with a load factor of 83.9%.

The other major European network airline group, Air France-KLM, also kept a tight grip on capacity in 2019. Passenger numbers increased 2.7% across the group to 104.2 million, though its low-cost brand Transavia grew at a faster rate.

Low-cost carrier EasyJet increased passenger numbers by almost 10% to 96.1 million for the year ending 30 October 2019. That strong growth in part included the full impact of the launch of its Berlin Tegel operation – another by-product of the collapse of Air Berlin, which it launched in early 2018.

Central European carrier Wizz Air grew at the fastest rate of the established low-cost carriers within Europe. It lifted passenger numbers by 16% to more than 42 million. It now ranks as the sixth biggest individual carrier in Europe – notably rising above low-cost rival Norwegian. Passenger numbers fell 3% at the latter, as its high-profile network restructuring continued.

Norwegian was not the only recent growth engine of European airlines to report lower passenger numbers. Two of Europe’s fastest growing carriers over the past decade, Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Airlines, are both reporting falls in domestic traffic.

Turkish Airlines, which increased passenger numbers even amid the political difficulties in the country in 2016, reported a 1% fall in passenger numbers to 74.3 million in 2019. While international passengers increased 3.5%, traffic was down more than 7% on domestic routes.

It is a similar story for Pegasus. While the carrier is still to report full-year figures, data for the first 11 months of 2019 show the airline’s passenger numbers down 1%. The differing performance in domestic and international sectors was even more stark; its domestic passenger volumes were down 12.5%, while they climbed almost 17% on international routes.

While Aeroflot is also still to report its traffic figures for 2019, data released by Russian aviation regulator FAVT shows Aeroflot’s mainline operation increasing passenger numbers 4% to 37.2 million, and a 43% jump at is low-cost unit Pobeda to more than 10 million.

The preliminary data shows passengers carried by all Russian carriers in 2019 increased by just over 10%.

European growth rate slows in 2019

FlightGlobal analysis of the available preliminary traffic data shows passenger numbers across Europe’s 10 biggest airline groups – accounting for some 860 million passengers – increased 5.2% in 2019 compared with the previous year.

That marks a notably lower rate than the 9.4% growth in passengers that the same 10 airline groups reported in 2018. While the high figure in 2018 is in part accounted for by several of these carriers taking over capacity formerly flown by Air Berlin and Niki, it also reflects a deliberate moderation in capacity by European operators in 2019. That trend deepened over the second half of the year.

The overall figure for European airline traffic growth for 2019 is likely even lower than the 5.4% recorded across its biggest carrier groups, given the relatively large number of airline failures in the region during the year. Thomas Cook Airlines, Flybmi, Wow Air, Germania and Adria Airways were all among European operators to cease flights during 2019.

Europe’s big hubs show moderated growth

Preliminary figures released by Europe’s biggest airports show relatively slow growth among these hubs in 2019 – though in many cases this is set against a large base figure.

Analysis of preliminary traffic data released by 15 of the 30 largest European airports shows an increase in collective passenger numbers through these hubs of 3.1% in 2019.

That includes fractional growth at Europe’s busiest airport, London Heathrow. Passenger numbers rose more than 5% at Europe’s second busiest airport, Paris Charles de Gaulle. Moscow Sheremetyevo, Milan Malpensa and Madrid Barajas all reported strong passenger growth in 2019.

Selection of European airport preliminary passenger numbers: 2019

CityAirportCountry2019 pax (m)2018 pax (m)Change (%)
London Heathrow UK 80.8 80.1 0.9
Paris Charles de Gaulle France 76.2 72.2 5.5
Amsterdam Schiphol Netherlands         71.7 71.0 1.0
Frankfurt  International Germany 70.5 69.5 1.4
Madrid Barajas Spain 61.7 57.8 6.7
Barcelona El Prat Spain 52.7 50.2 5.0
Moscow Sheremetyevo Int’l     Russia 49.9 45.4 9.9
Munich International Germany 47.9 46.2 3.7
Paris Orly France 31.9 33.1 -3.6
Zurich Airport Switzerland 31.5 31.1 1.3
Copenhagen Kastrup  Denmark 30.3 30.3 0.0
Palma de Mallorca Airport Spain 29.2 29.1 0.3
Oslo Gardermoen Norway 28.6 28.5 0.4
Milan Malpensa Italy 26.8 24.7 8.5
Dusseldorf International Germany 25.5 24.3 4.9
Source: FlightGlobal analysis of airports to disclose traffic figures as of 20 January 2020