EasyJet Says Alitalia Slump Leaves Italy Open as It Adds Naples

EasyJet Plc opened its third base in Italy as Europe’s second-largest discount airline ramps up the challenge to unprofitable Alitalia SpA.

EasyJet will initially station two jets in Naples, allowing the Luton, England-based carrier to lift annual capacity at the south Italian city about 25 percent to almost 2 million passengers, Chief Executive Officer Carolyn McCall said today.

“We have a consumer base in Italy that’s very receptive,” she said in an interview. “It’s unusual where you get consumers that are so disaffected with their national carrier.”

The opening comes a year after EasyJet first linked Rome Fiumicino and Milan Linate airports, the other two bases, ending Alitalia’s monopoly on Italy’s most lucrative route. The U.K. carrier is targeting business travelers making 2.6 million trips a year to and from Naples with multiple daily frequencies and corporate-friendly destinations like Hamburg and London Gatwick.

“Italy is a key market for EasyJet and one in which we have ambitious expansion plans,” McCall said in Naples. “You do have Alitalia in the news a lot about restructuring, retrenchment, taking capacity out, so you have a big shift.”

EasyJet will add six new routes to Naples in its summer schedule for a total of 21, served by 146 flights a week. It will also have 32 percent more capacity at Fiumicino.

The carrier, which has flown to Naples since 2000, is beginning to base planes in Italy as an extension of a strategy that focuses on European countries that are “under-penetrated” by low-cost operators, and where so-called legacy airlines are weak, said Oliver Sleath, an analyst at Barclays in London.

Ryanair Ramp Up

EasyJet had a 12 percent share of Italian air travel in the first half of 2013, according to flight-schedule data firm OAG, making it the No. 3 carrier in Europe’s fourth-biggest market.

Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s top discount operator, is also muscling in, with 14 bases in a country where Alitalia had losses of 294 million euros ($406 million) in the first half.

EasyJet has carried 13.5 million passengers in the Italian market in the past 12 months, serving 17 airports, while Ryanair flew more than 23 million customers at 23 airports last year and is targeting 26 million in 2014.

Vueling Airlines SA, the Barcelona-based low-cost unit of British Airways owner International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, is likewise boosting its Italian presence.

Etihad Impact

John Alborante, Ryanair’s sales and marketing manager for Italy, Croatia and Greece, said yesterday in a London interview that while the Irish carrier is targeting the international market, internal flights in particular present a “great opportunity due to the lack of consistency of Alitalia.”

Propped up by a government-brokered rescue package, Alitalia is seeking to lure investors attracted by long-haul routes that make Italy Europe’s No. 3 outbound travel market, with Etihad Airways PJSC of Abu Dhabi leading the bidding.

An Etihad cash injection would be built around maximizing earnings from Alitalia’s premium cabins and feeding the second-biggest Gulf carrier’s Abu Dhabi hub, and could actually accelerate a withdrawal from European routes, McCall said.

“It might make Alitalia more rational on short-haul, because I don’t think Etihad will put up with a lot of unprofitable flying that doesn’t benefit its end-game, which is all about the Gulf,” she said. “I don’t think it’s negative.”

EasyJet’s loss for the fiscal first half ending March 31 -- the slackest travel period for airlines -- will be between 55 million pounds and 65 million pounds ($91 million-$108 million), versus a 61 million-pound loss a year earlier, it said this week. That’s better than initially forecast after a mild winter reduced the level of weather-related disruption.

EasyJet said today that it had agreed a deal with Gatwick airport that will guarantee access charges at its largest base for seven years in return for a traffic boost that will see passenger numbers jump 10 percent in the next 12 months.

Gatwick “is a fantastic business airport,” McCall said. “It needs to establish itself in the mind of corporates. It’s an important string in our bow.”

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