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Ryanair is set to overtake budget rival easyJet as the biggest airline in the UK this year, boosted by strong growth in Belfast, boss Michael O’Leary predicts.

The Irish low-cost carrier says it could have 40 routes operating from Belfast International airport and four million passengers.

The airline made a return to Belfast in March by starting a Gatwick route. A further seven routes followed, and there are now 11 destinations served from the city. 

Referring to easyJet, Ryanair chief executive O’Leary said: “We’re neck and neck at the moment.

“As we open up the new base in Belfast, we’re adding more aircraft this winter in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, and Stansted continues to grow strongly, we should overtake them by the end of this year.”

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he said: “I don’t get too hung up on whether we overtake them or not. It’s only a question of time, when we’ll overtake them. It doesn’t really make a lot of difference.”

His comments came ahead of easyJet today announcing a 6.1% rise in April passenger numbers to more than 6.3 million, with the load factor trimmed by 0.4 percentage points to 90.4%. This resulted in a 7.4% hike in annual carryings to 71.1 million.

O’Leary talked up the Ryanair’s planned use of Boeing’s new aircraft, the 737 MAX 200, which he said “would transform” the airline’s cost base.

The carrier has ordered 200 of the aircraft and they will enter service in 2019.

“They come with 4% more seats, therefore eight more seats per flight, and the new engine technology will reduce fuel consumption per passenger by about 18% or 19%,” he said.

“Last year, fuel accounted for about 45% of our total cost, and if we can reduce that by a double-digit number, it means we’re again getting closer and closer to my idea where we can lower our averages fares from €45 (£35) to €25 (£20), and double our traffic from 100 to 180, 200 million passengers.”

O’Leary said the attacks on Brussels in March continued to dampen demand for flying in Europe, though traffic was strong during the Easter holidays.

“The Brussels effect has dampened demand into April to May though funnily enough it did not create as much disruption over the Easter period, but I think that’s because a lot of families had holidays booked,” he said.

He said he hoped Brussels Zaventem airport, the target of a terrorist attack in March, would be back to full capacity by June.