Ryanair anticipates carrying two million passengers to and from Malta in 2016 – meaning it would have 40 per cent of the market share at Malta International Airport if the latter meets its 2016 target of 4.97 million arrivals.

The only country in which Ryanair has a larger share of the overall passengers is Ireland (49 per cent of market share), with the next largest markets being Belgium (28 per cent), Italy (26 per cent) and Spain (18 per cent), according to Chiara Ravara, Ryanair’s sales and marketing manager for the region which includes Malta.

Until last year, Air Malta carried the absolute majority of passengers to Malta but while its passenger numbers fell 8.1 per cent in the first half of this year due to a slowdown in Germany and Russia, Ryanair registered a 37 per cent increase in passenger movements (equivalent to 202,691 passengers).

And the dominance over Air Malta will be reinforced further by year end as a result of Ryanair’s focus on winter routes. Ms Ravara said: “We are aligned with Malta Tourism Authority’s strategy to turn Malta into a year-round destination as our growth in winter 2016 shows, with 38 routes to 14 countries in total – 17 of them new – representing a +50 per cent growth year-on-year.”

This is a dramatic growth from the two flights Ryanair operated when it started operations to Malta in October 2006, adding six more destinations the following year.

Air Malta is resigned to the fact that Ryanair has overtaken it as the dominant airline

The current summer schedule flies 36 routes, of which nine are new.

With 34 per cent of market share in the first half of the year – compared with Air Malta’s 32 per cent – The Business Observer asked Ryanair whether it still receives marketing assistance – something originally justified years ago when the airline opened Malta to new destinations. However, Ms Ravara said: “Ryanair does not comment on its commercial agreements.”

Air Malta is resigned to the fact that Ryanair has overtaken it as the dominant airline. A spokesman said: “The record number of tourists and the increase in popularity of Malta as a destination has not gone unnoticed by other European carriers. Since 2009, when low-cost carriers started operating to Malta, the number of airlines flying to Malta has grown steadily and today some 50 other international airlines are servicing the Malta route.

“As a consequence, Air Malta is competing with larger airlines that can offer cheaper ticket prices as they enjoy better economies of scale and also have the advantage of being able to fly to Malta in the peak of summer when demand is high and pull out when the demand decreases in winter. On the other hand, Air Malta, as the national carrier, shoulders the responsibility of providing a reliable year-round service to an array of destinations, even in the loss-making months,” he said, turning a blind eye to the fact that Ryanair is actually increasing its winter routes and not decreasing them.

The ‘economies of scale’ that Air Malta refers to would certainly not be helped by the plan outlined in the Budget update documents issued recently in which it says that the it would reduce its fleet to just seven aircraft if the deal with Alitalia falls through. Until last year, it had a fleet of 11 leased aircraft.

Air Malta’s spokesman was doggedly optimistic: “Over the past years, Air Malta has focused successfully on reducing its losses and is now looking at how to start growing again and reverse the trend of its diminishing market share.

“The government, as main shareholder of Air Malta, believes that this can be achieved by entering into a strategic partnership with a bigger airline. This will allow Air Malta to reduce costs thanks to the better purchasing power that the partnership brings and increase revenues thanks to better sales systems and network advantages.”

In the meantime, Ryanair is planning even further growth, with a fleet of 520 aircraft by 2024, by when it hopes to carry 180 million customers.

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