Low-cost airline easyJet carried almost two million passengers in March as the popularity of no-frills travel showed no signs of tailing off today.

The number of people on easyJet flights last month was more than 16% higher than a year earlier, taking the total for the year to March to 21.8 million.

The Luton-based group added that its load factor - the number of passengers flown as a proportion of seats available - rose to 87% from 86% in 2003. The average for the last year was 84.5%, easyJet added.

The airline has been further boosted by the delivery last month of four Airbus A319 aircraft - among 20 new planes set to be introduced by this summer.

EasyJet chief executive Ray Webster said the new aircraft - which take the group's Airbus fleet to 10 - had been well received.

He added: "These aircraft are supporting our need for increased capacity and have consistently outperformed our expectations in terms of reliability and passenger popularity."

The improvement in passenger numbers comes as easyJet steps up its expansion with the announcement of a number of new routes.

In February, it unveiled plans to operate new flights from a base at Dortmund in Germany while customers will next month be able to fly to Budapest and Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

Mr Webster said the latest traffic statistics for March offered encouragement.

He added: "Both our passenger numbers and load factor continue to show steady improvement, reflecting the reliability and sustainability of our low-cost model in a growing and competitive market."

Earlier this week, easyJet rival Ryanair said it carried 2.14 million passengers in March - an increase of 51% on a year earlier. The load factor remained unchanged at 78% with Internet sales now accounting for 97% of business, compared with 83% a year earlier.

Wednesday April 07, 2004