Ryanair is facing challenges at both ends of its price range, with Europe’s largest airline taking aim at proposed minimum fares in France after fending off a cap on what it charges in Italy.
France, where Ryanair serves cities such as Marseille and Bordeaux, has floated proposals for a minimum ticket price in an effort to reduce pollution from aviation.
Across the border in Italy, Ryanair is the clear market leader and says its expansion plans remain on course after a public dispute with the government over a plan to limit prices on flights to the holiday islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
The French price proposal, which EU officials said has drawn some support from the Netherlands and Belgium, got short shrift from senior Ryanair executive Eddie Wilson.
“They are trying to disenfranchise their own citizens,” he said, framing the proposal as an attempt to support national carriers at the expense of less affluent travellers.
This summer’s standoff between Ryanair and the Italian government shows how central the low-cost carriers have become to life in Europe and how hard it is to rein them in.
“Low cost air travel has been one of the great levellers in the European Union in terms of moving people around and integration of people,” added Wilson, chief executive of Ryanair DAC, the largest airline in the group.
Having established a strong position in large parts of Western Europe, Ryanair is now looking east to countries such as Poland for further growth.
Italy, where air travel was once associated with the perennially loss-making Alitalia, is a prime example of the impact made by budget airlines.
Ryanair now generates more than a fifth of its revenues – almost 2.4 billion euros ($2.6 billion) in its last financial year – on Italian routes, and claims a market share in excess of 40%.
“It has been able to grow in recent years, partly because of Alitalia’s weakness,” said transport analyst Andrea Giuricin, from TRA Consulting.
“It has been able to win market share in domestic and international short- and medium-haul that had been left behind,” he added, noting however that the Italian market had expanded from 53 million passengers in 1997 to 161 million in 2019.
Ryanair called into question its own ambitions of doubling passenger numbers on Italian routes to 100 million over the next decade after falling out with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government over the summer.
Alarmed by the prices of domestic flights to Sicily and Sardinia in high season, the government passed a decree in August to cap them, striking a chord with Italians who want to return to their native regions to visit families in summer.
“Flight prices are now out of control during holiday periods … and penalise the most inaccessible regions with the highest emigration rates,” said Giuseppe Cocuzza, a Rome-based engineer who travels to his native Catania, in Sicily, during vacation.
However, after Ryanair said it would challenge the cap at the European Commission and switch more Italian flights to international routes, Rome diluted the measure by handing control for policing prices to its antitrust body.
Europe’s main airlines lobby group expressed relief and called on more European coordination to support the sector.
“When I see this level of ambition nationally, in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Italy coming up with their own initiatives … we can really do something together in Europe, rather than break up the market it took us 30 years to create,” said Ourania Georgoutsakou, the head of Airlines for Europe.
Alitalia has been replaced by a slimmed down state carrier, ITA which is due to get some heavyweight foreign backing from Lufthansa.
The German airline has agreed to take a 41% stake in ITA, although the deal is awaiting clearance from the European authorities, to Meloni’s irritation.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr has said a stronger ITA will reinvigorate competition in the Italian market but Ryanair’s Wilson is unperturbed, describing ITA as a sideshow.
The impact of Ryanair is evident in the northern town of Bergamo, some 50 kms (31 miles) from Milan, which has become the third busiest airport in the country after nearby Malpensa and Rome Fiumicino on the back of its partnership with the airline.
Designated this year as Italian cities of culture, Bergamo and nearby Brescia were getting extra tourist arrivals, a spokesperson for Bergamo airport operator Sacbo said.
With the Vatican declaring 2025 a Jubilee Year, meaning even more tourists heading for Rome, and Italy hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Wilson sees further growth on the radar.
“There is a vision in Italy for them to become the number one inbound tourist economy in Europe. And they should be given what they have to offer down there,” he said citing food, wine, islands and archaeology.
“They just need to get people there.”