The owner of Britain’s Manchester and Stansted airports said passenger numbers should jump next year as travelers switch to the low-cost flights in which the hubs specialize.

Manchester Airports Group sees flyers increasing to 59 million in 2023 from about 54 million this year, Chief Executive Officer Charlie Cornish said in an interview. That’s just 3 million, or 5%, below the total in 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak upended global air travel.

MAG expects to gain momentum from discount carriers splurging on capacity as the economic slump pushes people to switch to cheaper travel options. Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest no-frills airline, is targeting gains in market share and counts Stansted as its largest base. Manchester also hosts the Irish carrier as well as EasyJet Plc, Jet2 Plc and tour operator TUI AG.

“We’ve got a high proportion of low-cost airlines, which will definitely help,” Cornish said. “People will trade down. They won’t fly longhaul but they may fly Ryanair, EasyJet and Jet2 for their low fares.” By 2024, he said, passenger numbers should be “well ahead” of pre-Covid levels.

Heathrow Gloom

The optimism at MAG, which also owns East Midlands Airport, contrasts with a gloomier outlook at London Heathrow. John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Britain’s biggest hub, doesn’t expect demand to return to 2019 levels until 2025 or 2026.

Heathrow relies much more on business travel, which has yet to fully return, especially on the long-haul routes in which it specializes, and hosts none of Europe’s major discount airlines.

The airport has forecast total passengers of 62 million this year, still down 23% on 2019’s 81 million. The October number was equivalent to 84% of the pre-Covid level, compared with 93% at MAG.

Budget Impact

Cornish said he expects the travel rebound to accelerate even as the recent tax increases announced by UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt weigh on spending, with the measures potentially holding back around 1 million passengers journeys.

Like Heathrow, Manchester has seen a slower return in long-haul travel, with limited flights to China, none to India, and reduced services to the US. Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. will begin rebuilding Caribbean schedules this winter.

Manchester was one of the first victims of a European travel meltdown this year amid a staffing shortage that first hit in early April. Issues surrounding ground handling had largely been resolved by June and Britain’s third-busiest hub is now fully staffed, Cornish said.