EASYJET, the UK based budget carrier, has forecast the release of pent-up demand across Europe once travel restrictions are relaxed as vaccines are rolled out. A record number of more than 70 aircraft are to be deployed at Gatwick the summer as rivals retrench.

EasyJet holidays bookings for this summer are currently “significantly ahead” of last year, “although it is evident that many customers are looking for further certainty around quarantine rules prior to booking”.

The projections came as the UK budget carrier revealed an 87% fall in passengers to 2.9 million in the quarter to December 31 as capacity was slashed by 82% to 4.4 million seats – 18% of pre-pandemic levels. Passenger revenue fell by 90% year-on-year to £118 million and ancillary revenue decreased by 84% to £47 million.

The airline has shed around 1,400 UK jobs as part of cost-cutting, secured a new £1.4 billion loan and generated £779 million through aircraft sale and leaseback deals. The majority of UK-based pilots now operate on seasonal contracts.

The airline revealed the results of research this month among 5,000 European consumers showing that 65% have or plan to make a travel booking in 2021.

Existing EasyJet customers are even more likely to travel, rising to almost three quarters planning a trip this year. The airline said: “Subject to continued progress on vaccinations, together with the future relaxation of government travel restrictions across Europe, we are anticipating a release of pent-up demand for travel. We retain the flexibility to rapidly ramp up to capture that demand.”

EasyJet claimed to be uniquely placed to take advantage of the material reduction in competitor capacity at its key bases. “We continue to invest in the right opportunities – we are growing at Gatwick and will have a record 71 aircraft based there this summer and our initiatives in ancillaries and easyJet holidays are expected to generate material opportunities for future profit growth.” the company said.

The carrier described its last quarter financial performance as being in line with management expectations despite increased uncertainty due to strengthened travel restrictions across Europe.

“These restrictions and the continued uncertainty regarding their future removal are the main drivers of decreased customer demand,” EasyJet added.

“Despite this, we have successfully maintained our disciplined focus and agile approach on matching capacity to available demand while maintaining high customer satisfaction.” Four additional aircraft will be based at Gatwick for summer 2021, having recently obtained further slots in a trade with Norwegian Air.

“These aircraft will serve new routes including Aberdeen, Bilbao and Cagliari for next summer, as well as more frequent flying on existing domestic and international routes,” easyJet said. EasyJet now expects to offer 107 destinations from London Gatwick across 28 countries from summer 2021 and base 71 aircraft there.”

The airline added: “The European slot waiver mechanism in place for this winter enables us to best match our capacity against the lower demand that currently exists.

“Discussions are underway by both the European Commission and the UK regarding a revised airport slot waiver for the summer 2021 season. We remain focused on cash generative flying in order to minimise losses and cash burn. We retain the flexibility to ramp up capacity quickly when we see demand return. At this stage, given the continued level of short-term uncertainty, it would not be appropriate to provide any further financial guidance for the 2021 financial year.  Customers are booking at a later stage and visibility remains limited.”

Tour operating arm easyJet holidays signed a further 35 “high quality” hotels previously under exclusive contracts with competitors in the quarter to December.

“Four- and five-star hotels now account for c70% of all holidays sold and these hotels generate a margin premium,” the company said.

“Our low-cost base ensures that we are able to offer outstanding value, with c75% of our holidays offering the best value in the market on like-for-like searches, whilst still providing strong marginal profit contribution. Holidays for winter 2021-22 were launched in December and are experiencing very positive demand.” added the company.