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Ryanair plans to carry 225m passengers by 2026 in Covid rebound

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Ryanair plans to fly an extra 25 million passengers a year by 2026, as the no-frills airline tries to take advantage of the industry’s slow recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Irish airline said it hoped to carry 225 million passengers annually by March 2026, 25 million higher than its previous target of 200 million, as it prepared for its annual meeting in Dublin on Thursday.

Airlines have been among the sectors most affected by the coronavirus pandemic amid extended restrictions on international travel, even as domestic economies including the UK have opened up, and are jostling for position for the recovery.

Related: British Airways operates passenger flight using recycled cooking oil

Ryanair earlier this month said it expected to exceed pre-Covid passenger numbers – 149 million passengers in 2019 – by 2022. It will then expand rapidly as it takes up airport slots vacated by collapsed or struggling rivals. Thursday’s increased forecasts equated to 50% growth over five years, compared with an earlier prediction of 33%.

The expansion will also mean an increase in staff. Ryanair on Tuesday said it would hire 5,000 people, including pilots, cabin crew and engineers, across Europe over the five-year period.

Ryanair will take delivery of 210 Boeing 737 Max aircraft over the next five years. It calls the 737 Max a “gamechanger” because of increased reliability and lower fuel consumption. The 737 Max only returned to service at the end of 2020 after being grounded for almost two years after a fault caused two crashes, killing 346 people.

Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair chief executive, highlighted lower carbon emissions from the newer planes. However, the company has not set a target to reduce overall emissions, meaning its carbon footprint could rise significantly as it expands.

Ryanair in 2016 said it would reach the 200m passenger mark by 2024, suggesting that the pandemic has not knocked its long-term growth plans too far off course. Other airlines have been forced to retrench: shares in Ryanair’s main UK rival, easyJet, last week slumped after it said it would raise £1.2bn to see it through the recovery.

O’Leary said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has delivered an unprecedented blow to Europe’s aviation and tourism industries. Only Ryanair has used this crisis to place significantly increased aircraft orders, to expand our airport partnerships, and to secure lower operating costs so that we can pass on even lower fares to our guests, so that together with our airport partners, we can recover strongly from the Covid pandemic and deliver higher than expected growth in both traffic and jobs over the next five years.”

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