Ryanair shares soar to new high on back of strong winter sales, 3rd straight profit upgrade

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DUBLIN — Ryanair keeps soaring higher and higher.

Europe's biggest budget airline announced its third profits upgrade of the year Thursday on the back of unexpectedly strong winter seat sales. Shares surged more than 9 percent to above 9.50 euros ($11.70), a record high and nearly 50 percent above the stock's price a year ago.

The Dublin-based airline said it expects net profits for the fiscal year ending in March to reach at least 810 million euros ($1 billion), 8 percent higher than its previous upgraded forecast issued last month. The upgrade means that, unusually, Ryanair now expects to score profits in the traditionally loss-making winter months.

Ryanair said it filled 88 percent of seats in November, compared to 81 percent a year ago, despite a 7 percent expansion of winter services. It credited strong sales of its newly introduced business-class tickets, which allow passengers to change their flights without penalty and to check a bag without a fee.

The airline said it now expects to carry 90 million passengers this year, 1 million more than previously forecast. Ryanair already operates from more than 180 airports in 30 countries across Europe and North Africa, is eyeing expansion opportunities into the Middle East and Russia, and plans to carry 150 million passengers annually by 2024.

Ryanair's gains appear to be coming at the expense of higher-cost European rivals, many of which are in debt, cutting services and struggling to record profits.

Its main Irish competitor, Aer Lingus, announced Thursday its November business fell 3.6 percent as just 72.6 percent of its seats were sold, down slightly from 2013.

Ryanair is Aer Lingus' biggest shareholder with a 30 percent stake. But its efforts to take control of Aer Lingus since the formerly state-owned airline's 2006 privatization have been blocked by European Union competition officials as well as by the Irish government and labor union-controlled trusts, the other two major shareholders.

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