Budget airline easyJet today posted a smaller-than-expected winter loss after it benefited from flying a record number of business passengers.

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The Luton-based carrier, which is also a major operator at Stansted, attracted a total of 27.6million passengers in the six months to the end of March, an increase of 4%, as revenues rose by 6.3% to £1.7billion and losses narrowed to £53m. This was not only better than last year’s £61m first half deficit but also ahead of upgraded guidance given to the City by easyJet in April.

The company, which has courted more lucrative business customers through seat allocation and priority boarding, said it flew a record 12m business passengers in the year to March, an increase of 44% compared with the total of 8.4m in 2010 when it first began to target business passengers.

Chief executive Carolyn McCall said: “Recession and austerity has also encouraged business passengers across Europe to sample easyJet and when they do so they like the experience.”

The company said that over the last six months it had managed to cut costs, boost margins and increase capacity. Total revenue per seat rose 1.5% to £54.80, capacity grew by 3.6% to 31.1m seats and its load factor, a industry measure of how full its planes are, increased 0.4% to 89%.

It added that it expects to have a busy summer, when it carries more holidaymakers and traditionally makes all it profits.

In the six months to September 30, easyJet expects its rivals to boost capacity by 2.4m seats or 2.9%, while it plans to increase capacity by 2.6m seats or 6.7%.

Ms McCall added: “easyJet has delivered a solid first half performance despite the less benign capacity environment. The results reflect our on-going progress against our strategic priorities, and demonstrate the structural advantage easyJet has against both legacy and low cost competition in the European short haul market.

“By continuing to deliver our strategy of offering customers lower fares to great destinations with friendly service while focusing upon costs, we can continue to deliver sustainable growth and returns for our shareholders.

“There continue to be a number of attractive opportunities for easyJet to grow profitably in Europe and we look forward to making further progress in the second half of the year.”

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