Between insults aimed at his rivals, Ryanair’s salty chief executive, Michael O’Leary, predicted years ago that his fiercely competitive budget airline would one day attract more passengers than Europe's establishment giant, Lufthansa.
Ryanair’s day of victory is rapidly approaching. The Irish carrier served 117 million passengers in 2016, an increase of 15 percent. Lufthansa, which has yet to release full-year figures, served 101.9 million passengers in the first 11 months of the year.
Though the numbers for December haven’t arrived yet, it’s unlikely that Lufthansa will make a photo finish. About 8-9 million passengers typically fly with the airline during the last month of the year, which makes it almost impossible that Germany’s flagship carrier will catch up with its budget rival.
Assuming there isn't a miracle, it will mark the first time 2009 that the top ranking in Europe has changed hands. Lufthansa Group took the lead that year from Air France-KLM and has held it ever since. The German airline will also no doubt find solace in the fact that it's set to remain Europe's largest airline by revenue.
But losing the passenger battle is still a sign of its recent struggles. Lufthansa has been nearly crippled in recent years by recurrent pilot strikes that have resulted in thousands of flight cancellations.
Germany’s flagship carrier, which has a complex corporate structure incorporating a host of subsidiaries across Europe, has also had trouble keeping pace with more agile budget carriers like Ryanair.
The Irish airline, which serves 34 countries in Europe and its near abroad, is closing in on Lufthansa’s home turf. Ryanair plans to start flying from Frankfurt Airport this summer instead of the remote Frankfurt-Hahn regional airport in Hunsrück.
The budget airline aims to connect the 200 airports it currently serves with Frankfurt to attract more business travelers. By 2024, Ryanair aims to serve 200 million passengers annually.
The Irish airline's meteoric rise hasn't come without controversy. Ryanair has faced repeated accusations that its employees are subject to substandard conditions, working long hours for low wages.
Lufthansa's desire to mimic that model at least in part, by pushing more services onto its low-cost carrier Eurowings, is a large part of why its pilots have been on strike. The German pilot's union Cockpit has accused the Ryanair of "social dumping."
Kersin Leitel is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in London. Spencer Kimball of Handelsblatt Global contributed to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]