Business flyers are flocking to EasyJet

Winter is traditionally an unforgiving season for airlines. The weather tends to be bad and fewer passengers are jetting off for their holidays. So, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that EasyJet posted a pre-tax loss of £53m in its half-year results. But that is still better than the £61m the airline lost in the same period last year.

There was other good news too. Total revenue grew by 6.3% to £1.7bn and the airline reported a 4% rise in the number of passengers. This was partly down to a change in the airline’s seating policy.

Passengers are now allocated their seats instead of enduring a free-for-all when boarding planes – something that tended to put off older passengers and business flyers.

In fact, the boost from the latter group can hardly be overstated. EasyJet has been successful at luring away business passengers from the national flag carriers. Custom from this lucrative group, who tend to book later and pay for extras, rose by 8.5%. That’s great news for EasyJet shareholders.

The six months to the end of March tend to be plagued with the costs of disruption from bad weather and the need to spend money on de-icer. But owing to the milder weather at the beginning of the year, those costs came in at lower than expected.

Meanwhile, EasyJet has aggressively set about cutting costs through a programme it calls ‘EasyJet Lean’. The airline announced it has made £14m in annualised savings.

Underperforming flight routes have been axed, while 17 new ones have been added to its service. EasyJet has set itself a target of growing capacity by 6.7% this summer.

The management says it feels optimistic. Chief executive Carolyn McCall thought the half-year results reflected “a solid first half performance despite the less benign capacity environment”.

She also feels EasyJet enjoys a “structural advantage” over its national rivals, while fuel prices and exchange rates should remain favourable, at least in the short term. £308m was returned to shareholders in the six-month period.

EasyJet should also gain a further boost from the late Easter this year. The bonus to the books from the extra passengers flying over the holiday period will be reported in the next set of results.

Last November, Phil Oakley rated the shares a hold, having tipped the airline as a buy in November 2012.

Shares fell by 4.2% yesterday, but were up by 0.6% in early trading today.