The purchase of all of Brussels Airlines, previously part owned, and the leasing of planes from insolvent Air Berlin Plc saw Lufthansa’s passenger traffic surge 15 percent last year, enough to pass IAG, which had a 3.8 percent gain. Air France-KLM Group remains the region’s biggest carrier after 5 percent growth.
Traffic, or customers carried times the distance flown, is the industry standard for evaluating the size of airlines. IAG, created in a merger of BA and Madrid-based Iberia in 2011, overtook Lufthansa to grab Europe’s second spot in 2015, aided by takeovers of British Midland, Spain’s Vueling and Ireland’s Aer Lingus.
By passengers alone, Lufthansa ranked ahead of Ryanair Holdings Plc as Europe’s biggest operator, with 130 million customers across brands that include Austrian Airlines, Swiss and Eurowings, versus 129 million at the Irish discounter. IAG carried 105 million passengers and Air France-KLM 99 million.
Buying full control of Brussels Air gained Lufthansa traffic from routes including services to sub-Saharan Africa. The decline of Air Berlin led it to take over planes and, when the carrier folded, boosted demand already increasing amid robust economic growth. It also benefited from relative labor peace after disputes had led it to cancel 20,000 flights over three years.
Air France-KLM has shied away from major purchases since its formation in a merger of two of Europe’s top four airlines in 2004, a deal big enough for it to remain the region’s biggest operator even as rivals have narrowed the gap.
The Paris-based company was also Europe’s best-performing airline stock in 2017 with a 162 percent gain, compared with 150 percent at Lufthansa and 48 percent at IAG. Air France-KLM began from a lower base after unions frustrated attempts to cut costs over several years, but Lufthansa now ranks neck-and-neck by market value with IAG, which has seen a decline in the worth of U.K. receipts converted to euros since the pound fell after the mid-2016 Brexit vote.
Further transactions are set to swell leading carriers this year. Lufthansa is taking over more Air Berlin assets and IAG will buy slots vacated by defunct Monarch Airlines Ltd., while also chasing Air Berlin’s Austrian arm Niki. Italy’s Alitalia SpA is insolvent and for sale, with Lufthansa seen as a potential bidder.