LONDON—European travelers haven’t had an easy ride of late. Blame the discount carriers. U.K. budget airline Monarch Airlines went belly up last week, stranding 100,000 mostly British passengers across Europe and triggering what the country’s transport minister described as its biggest peacetime repatriation.
That came on top of an even bigger—if less dramatic— disruption. For weeks now, Ryanair Holdings PLC, the Irish discounter, has been canceling thousands of flights after it bungled vacation scheduling for its pilots.
Ryanair's passenger figures have been growing at a rapid pace but staffing trouble may slow future growth.
It isn’t just budget travelers feeling the pain. Ryanair, after years of supercharged growth, is now Europe’s largest airline by passengers flown. Along with being used by tourists jetting off to the beach, it now carries an increasing number of business travelers across the Continent.
Ryanair flew 120 million customers in the year ended March 31, up from 42.5 million a decade ago. The next biggest single carrier, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, flew 62 million in its last full year. Ryanair has also come to dominate some national markets, accounting for 28% of all European Union flights starting or ending in Italy, for example.
Budget carriers overall now make up about 38% of all airline tickets sold in Europe, up from 30% 10 years ago, according to the International Air Transport Association. That translates into widespread pain when Ryanair or any of its smaller budget-carrier rivals hit operational headwinds.
Ryanair’s run of recent cancellations make up just 2.5% of its schedule through March. Still, that translates to about 20,000 flights that have disappeared across Europe. Since the flight cancellations were announced, Ryanair’s stock price has fallen 1.8%.
“For most people on a budget, looking to fly for business, you don’t have much choice,” said Karl Meyer, a marketing manager at GÉANT, a European network for research collaboration based in Cambridge, England, and Amsterdam. Mr. Meyer’s return flight from Budapest to London was scrapped earlier this month.
Elizabeth Leggat, a freelance theater director, was caught when Ryanair canceled her return flight from Krakow to London. Ryanair offered a return flight days later. Instead, she paid a last-minute fare, about seven times her original ticket price, on budget rival easyJet PLC, to keep from missing work.
All told, cancellations at Ryanair and Monarch have left more than one million European passengers trying to rearrange travel. The Ryanair cancellations, in particular, have incensed European governments.
Belgian Minister of Consumer Affairs Kris Peeters called them “outrageous.” He said he was pursuing legal steps that could fine the airline for its actions unless it improves how it deals with customers. Italy’s national aviation regulator is considering fining the airline for misleading customers. And Andrew Haines, the head of Britain’s aviation regulator, said in a radio interview that he was “furious” about how the airline had handled the situation.
It has been an unusually tough year, anyway, for European commercial aviation. Italy’s once-proud flagship carrier, Alitalia, went bust over the summer, partly under pressure from budget carriers, like Ryanair, which have swooped into Italy’s domestic market. Alitalia is still flying while the government tries to sell it off.
Air Berlin, a budget carrier in Germany, filed for the equivalency of bankruptcy protection in August, forcing it to cancel some of the cheap, trans-Atlantic flights it had just started offering, including links between Berlin and Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Ryanair’s cancellations stemmed from what the airline said was an avoidable error in pilot-vacation planning. Its Irish regulator asked the airline to change its pilot-vacation periods starting next year. Because of a mix-up between the calendar year and Ryanair’s fiscal year, the airline ended up having too few pilots available after the busy summer season.