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Can Ryanair Holdings plc and easyJet plc buck the Brexit trend?

A sharp rise in fuel costs in Sterling, currency exchange losses as the pound plummets, outbound passenger numbers falling as belts are tightened in new low-growth and high-inflation times, and even the possible loss of access to Europe’s open skies — all of these mean Brexit is a disaster for the airline sector, yes?

Passenger growth

Well, not necessarily, and not if you look to the longer term and you believe the latest predictions from Ryanair (LSE: RYA).

The budget airline today released its first-half figures, and they’re headlined by a 7% rise in after-tax profit to €1,168m with basic earnings per share up 15% to €0.92. Some caution is needed before UK investors get too excited about that, because those gains are in euros and will be pretty much wiped out for people taking their profits in pounds,. But the longer-term picture is anything but gloomy.

First-half passenger numbers grew by 12% to 65 million, and that’s helped Ryanair to raise its forecasts. The company is now expecting to carry 119m passengers for the full year ending March 2017, though revenues are almost certain to fall due to Brexit effects (and the winter season).

But the firm’s forecast as far out as 2024 has been lifted by 10% to more than 200m passengers, and we also heard that “Despite the uncertainty of Brexit, Ryanair believes that we can deliver profitable growth across Europe“.

The Ryanair share price gained 5% as a result, to €13.42, and a sharp fall in the immediate days after the referendum has been mostly undone. But the shares are still down 7% since the momentous day, so are they worth buying?

We’re looking at a forward P/E for this year of a little over 12, dropping to 11 on 2018 forecasts. That’s lower than it’s been for some years, and if you believe those long-term forecasts then you could be looking at a good (if slightly risky) investment.

Collapsing pound

Over at easyJet (LSE: EZJ), whose accounting is all in pounds, there’s been no share price rebound after the Brexit plunge — the shares are still down 36% since the vote, at 980p.

And after years of rising earnings, there’s a 22% EPS fall for the year to September 2016 currently expected, followed by a further 16% next — more than just the decline in Sterling.

But passenger numbers for October showed a 6.9% rise compared to October 2015, and a 6.3% rise in rolling 12-month figures, and that matches Ryanair’s figures quite nicely.

Full-year figures should be with us on 15 November, and in October’s trading update we were told to expect pre-tax profit in the range of £490m to £495m — after an adverse impact of around £90m from currency exchange movements.

Chief executive Carolyn McCall said that the firm has been “disproportionately affected by extraordinary events this year“, but put faith in “our excellent network, cost control and revenue initiatives and our strong balance sheet“.

Is easyJet one to buy now, too? We’re looking at lower forward P/E multiples, of 9 and 10.6 for this year and next respectively. Those are lower than Ryanair’s, though understandably so with easyJet’s Sterling focus. But against that, easyJet is still expected to pay dividends — admittedly dropping next year, but they should still yield 5.4% this year and 4.5% next.

This could be another for those who can see through shorter-term risk.

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Alan Oscroft has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.