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Ryanair set to become our biggest company

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Ryanair is edging closer to becoming Ireland's biggest company, after another rise in its shares on the back of strong passenger figures put it in hot pursuit of CRH to take the crown.

At one point yesterday, the two companies were separated by just €400m in terms of their respective market capitalisations, with building materials giant CRH worth €14.4bn and Ryanair valued at just over €14bn.

Shares in Ryanair have jumped 54pc in the last year as the effects of its revamped customer offer filtered through to its performance.

Yesterday, the airline, which is headed by Michael O'Leary, said that it carried 6.02 million passengers in December - 20pc more than it did in December 2013.

That rise came as Ryanair increased capacity by 10.4pc last month compared to a year earlier, but its load factor - a crucial measure of what percentage of available seats it filled - jumped by seven percentage points to 88pc.

Ryanair chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs said the rise in passenger numbers was due to a better forward booking strategy and the result of its focus on providing a better customer experience, including specific targeting of families and business travellers.

The performance so far in winter - usually a time when airlines lose money - prompted Goodbody Stockbrokers analyst Mark Simpson to predict that Ryanair will report a €32m net profit in the quarter that ended in December, and a €15m net profit in the current quarter, which is the last of Ryanair's financial year.

Early last month, Ryanair shares hit a fresh record. But that was shattered yesterday as they broke the €10 barrier, gaining over 3pc at one stage.

They dropped back in later afternoon trading, but were still up 1.3pc at that stage.

In December, the airline raised its full-year profit guidance as it reported a better than expected performance in November.

It expects to make a profit of between €810m and €830m in the current financial year compared to the €750m to €770m it had previously forecast.

In November, Ryanair carried 6.35 million passengers. That was 22pc more than it did in November 2013.

The airline has been targeting business travellers on key routes such as the Dublin-Brussels Zaventem service, which had been exclusively operated by Aer Lingus.

Irish Independent