EasyJet Goes Off Piste to Woo Ski Fans in Winter Travel Lull

Jan 30, 2014 6:59 am ET

(Updates with share-price gain in fifth paragraph, Eurostar ski trains starting in ninth.)

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- EasyJet Plc’s strategy of serving Alpine resorts has produced a 20 percent jump in ski traffic over five years, helping it avoid the winter slump that causes competitor Ryanair Holdings Plc to ground one in four planes.

Europe’s second-biggest discount airline will operate as many as 25 jets from London to Geneva, its top ski location, on Saturdays in February, compared with as few as seven services to the Swiss city in the summer. The counter-seasonal surge is also apparent at winter sports gateways in France and Austria, with the market proving resilient even with economies sluggish.

“If times are bad, you might cut your holiday shorter, but you definitely want to go out and ski,” Thomas Haagensen, EasyJet’s regional manager for Germany and Switzerland, said in an interview at the carrier’s headquarters in Luton, England. “We’ve noticed strong stability in demand.”

A policy of targeting skiing, winter sun spots and cities with year-round appeal like Vienna means EasyJet keeps all jets earning cash even when the weather turns cool, unlike no-frills No. 1 Ryanair, which each year idles about a quarter of the fleet. EasyJet handles 115,000 ski bags annually, led by a U.K. market where the ski holiday has become “institutionalized,” according to Haagensen, with the Winter Olympics starting next week in Russia likely to provide a late-season boost.

Leading Carrier

EasyJet shares were trading 1.7 percent higher at 1,630 pence as of 11:05 a.m. in London after earlier advancing as much as 2.3 percent. The stock is up 6 percent for 2014 after doubling in price last year, when Ryanair advanced 33 percent.

In Geneva, EasyJet’s network has expanded to more than 60 routes from a dozen in 2008, with the U.K. company edging out Deutsche Lufthansa AG’s Swiss International Air Lines to become the No. 1 operator, Haagensen said. With 13 jets based at the terminal an hour’s drive from ski towns including Chamonix, the airline has seen a 50 percent increase in traffic since 2008.

Geneva’s winter surge makes it especially attractive in terms of fleet management, with counter-seasonal peaks also evident in Grenoble, France -- host city for the 1968 Winter Olympics and a gateway to Three Valleys ski region -- and Innsbruck in Austria, which staged the 1964 and 1976 Games.

EasyJet’s passenger count rose 4.3 percent in the first three months of 2013, the high season for European ski traffic. That compared with a 2.7 percent decline at Dublin-based Ryanair, which idled about 80 aircraft as its preferred method of coping with the seasonal downturn.

Eurostar Option

Airlines serving the Alps from the London area face competition from Channel Tunnel rail operator Eurostar Group Ltd., which has introduced a second winter-only “ski-special” operation to Switzerland, completing a French route that has run for years to stations close to the resorts of Courchevel, La Plagne, Tignes, Meribel and Les Arcs.

Under the new service, now in its second year, travelers take Eurostar expresses from London St. Pancras as far as Lille and change to TGV Lyria trains run by a venture of the French and Swiss state rail operators for connections to stops serving Verbier, Zermatt, Saas Fee and Gstaad. Both routes are almost sold out this ski season, spokeswoman Lucy Drake said today.

Munich, Sofia

At EasyJet, people tend to book ski trips months in advance, helping to insure against poor bookings if snow is poor, Haagensen said.

The British market grew 1 percent in the 2012-13 winter period to 899,700 skiers, ending a four-year decline as leisure spending recovered from the last recession, according to industry association Crystal Ski. France, Austria and Italy were the top destinations, followed by Andorra in the Pyrenees.

This season EasyJet is serving Geneva from the U.K. with seven winter-only routes spanning Glasgow in Scotland to Bournemouth on England’s south coast, adding to year-round flights from London Gatwick, Edinburgh and Manchester. The carrier has a 42 percent market share overall at the airport, with connections to more than 17 countries.

After the Swiss city, the top destinations by capacity served by EasyJet which have ski-related traffic are Munich, Lyon and Zurich, all gateways for the Alps, with Sofia, close to cut-price Bulgarian resorts, ranked fifth. Innsbruck, Grenoble, Vienna, Salzburg and Turin make up the top 10.

Diverse Population

Ryanair lists Grenoble, Salzburg and Turin as its leading ski routes, based on bookings from London Stansted and Dublin.

Year-round traffic to Geneva is also buoyed by an EasyJet network that reflects the international nature of the city’s population, Haagensen said, with links to secondary cities in countries such as France, Portugal and Italy that aren’t traditional leisure or business destinations.

“We analyze these pockets and the origins of these migration groups,” he said. “That’s how we’ve been building the outbound market and why Geneva stands on its feet.”

EasyJet’s pretax loss in the first half ending March 31 will be in the range of 70 million pounds to 90 million pounds, versus 61 million pounds a year earlier, it said Jan. 23. The loss will widen because Easter, popular both for late-season skiing and early Mediterranean breaks, falls outside the period after contributing 25 million pounds to the 2013 figure.

--Editors: Christopher Jasper, Benedikt Kammel