DUBLIN, IRELAND — Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary is determined to turbocharge growth and snatch more market share from competitors across Europe, reaffirming his ambition to double the airline's passenger numbers within the next ten years.

He is setting a bold target for the airline: to fly 300 million passengers annually by 2034, a number unprecedented in the airline industry. "The idea that Europe is fully saturated and can't accommodate further growth is mistaken," he shared with the Financial Times.

Ryanair recently purchased 300 short-haul aircraft from Boeing, in a deal worth $40 billion. However, some stakeholders and industry analysts are skeptical about the remaining potential for passenger growth in Europe, especially in the face of growing climate concerns and increasing carbon taxes on air travel.

O'Leary agrees that the airline's annual growth rate may slow down to around 4-5%, but remains confident that this will suffice to meet their forecasts. He sees plenty of opportunities to usurp market share from competitors in Western Europe, and also tap into the growing markets in Central and Eastern Europe.

"Provided we avoid any foolish moves — a daily challenge in this industry — we'll continue to outpace all other airlines in Europe," he commented.

In the wake of the pandemic, Ryanair has emerged as a leader in the European aviation sector, entering new markets as financially weaker rivals retracted. Already the largest airline in Europe by passenger numbers, it projects a record-breaking 168 million passengers for the year ending March, a 13% increase from pre-Covid times.

However, Alex Irving, an analyst at Bernstein, predicts a slowdown in the airline's growth as the industry recovers from the pandemic disruption. He believes that Ryanair's core market of Western Europe is nearly fully saturated.

"In the past, when it was smaller, it could sustain double-digit, or even high single-digit growth rates, but as a near-600 plane airline, maintaining these rates would negatively impact yields," Irving shared.

Instead, he expects the airline to transition from aggressive growth towards returning cash to shareholders, projecting yearly payouts of €2 billion in the near future.

Unfazed by these concerns, O’Leary encapsulates his business philosophy in three words: “lowest cost wins”.

Despite concerns around customer satisfaction due to its 'no frills' approach, Ryanair has been able to retain passengers through its low fares and reliable service. In fact, it managed to avoid laying off staff during the pandemic, opting for temporary pay cuts instead.

The airline's shares, currently around €16, have returned to pre-pandemic levels and have significantly outperformed competitors since the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

"They have been consistently focused on reducing unit costs, decreasing airfares and capturing market share," shared Chris Davies, an investment manager at Baillie Gifford, the third-largest investor in Ryanair.

However, there are concerns about the sustainability of the rebound in travel demand, especially if airfares remain high. Analysts worry that rising carbon taxes, due to environmental concerns and regulations, may further inflate fares.

Despite potential hurdles, many believe in Ryanair's ongoing success. "They're the best operator in the sector...There is a large market share left for them to capture... The only uncertainties are the extent of their expansion into new countries and the impact of carbon costs," shared Sébastien Thévoux-Chabuel, a portfolio manager at Comgest, a top-15 shareholder in Ryanair.

O’Leary’s contract ends in 2028, and signs of succession planning are evident as the company creates a group structure, positioning O'Leary atop the senior management team.