Largest operators defend capacity hike but concede risk of discounting

The UK’s three largest package tour operators say they are confident they have the right number of holidays on sale for 2024 in response to rising trade fears of overcapacity.

The bullish outlook came as Tui hailed double-digit growth in sales through independent agents following its pledge to work more closely with third-party retailers.

The bosses of Tui, easyJet holidays and Jet2holidays said they had based capacity decisions on current demand, but admitted discounting in lates was possible if market conditions change.

Between October 2022 and October 2023, the three companies added 3.3 million seats to the market for holidays due to travel in the next 12 months.

Jet2holidays chief executive Steve Heapy said: “I’m pretty confident we can fill that capacity. If I wasn’t confident, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.”

He conceded there could be a risk of discounting, adding: “The capacity is about right. But if there’s an escalation in the war in the Middle East or Ukraine or a big financial shock, then there will be an imbalance between supply and demand and prices will go down.”

Tui UK managing director Andrew Flintham agreed: “We all make our own decisions and base them on what we’re seeing our consumers doing. We’ll all keep our fingers crossed for January, but things are looking good.”

Neil Swanson, chief marketing officer at Tui, said “this is the most competitive turn of year I can remember” but admitted: “We need to see if it’s strong enough for all of us.”

In response to discounting fears, he added: “I’m not expecting to see that at turn of the year, but by the time we get to lates we’ll see what people have left and what needs to happen to get the volume away.”

EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren was also optimistic about next summer.

“People will gravitate towards value; that benefits companies [like us] as a low-cost airline,” he said.

Lundgren said he expected easyJet holidays’ passenger numbers to grow by more than 35%, increasing its market share from 5% to 7% in its financial year to September 2024.

Early UK bookings for next year were already “very strong” but, in terms of supply and demand, he said: “It remains to be seen how well‑balanced it will be.”

Fears have been mounting in the trade of overcapacity next year leading to a mass-market price war.

Travel Trade Consultancy director Martin Alcock raised concerns this could impact the whole industry.

Speaking at the Aito Overseas Conference in Greece last weekend, he said: “I cannot see there is enough demand for them all. My biggest fear is some of these large operators will come unstuck. If the bookings don’t come in, it means potential challenges and there’s a knock-on effect for the rest of the market.”

His worries were echoed by smaller operators, who fear the extra influence exerted by the larger players.

“Overcapacity is a big concern,” said Sunvil managing director Chris Wright, who added: “Last year we saw there was a real shift towards people travelling with the top three. We are [now] trying to sell more complex, tailor-made product.”

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