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UPDATE 1-Ryanair CEO sees travel 'mushrooming' despite COVID-19 restrictions

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LISBON, June 23 (Reuters) - As the summer holiday season kicks off, the number of passengers hopping on Ryanair planes is “mushrooming” despite travel restrictions in place to control the spread of the coronavirus, Group Chief Executive Michael O’Leary said on Wednesday.

In an interview with Reuters ahead of a news conference in Lisbon, O’Leary said bookings had recovered very strongly over the last eight weeks, with particularly high volumes of bookings to Portugal and other summer destinations from Germany, Scandinavia, and the Benelux countries.

“Traffic is mushrooming and a lot of that folk are families going on summer holidays to the beaches of Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy,” O’Leary said, adding the airline was on track to fly 80 to 100 million passengers by March 2022.

That is up from 27.5 million last year but still below pre-pandemic levels of 149 million. O’Leary said Ryanair carried 1.7 million passengers in May and said the number was likely to increase to 5 million in June and 9 million the following month.

To boost travel further, O’Leary said fully vaccinated holidaymakers across Europe should be allowed to travel freely.

Britain allowed vacations again from May after months of lockdown but discourages travel to popular holiday destinations such as Spain, France, Greece and the United States, classifying them as “amber” under its “traffic light” system.

Last week, Ryanair launched a legal challenge against Britain over the traffic light system, hoping to force a relaxation of the rules.

Britons returning from European holiday destinations, including Spain, Portugal and Greece, that are currently rated “amber”, have to take multiple COVID-19 tests and isolate for 10 days.

O’Leary said the UK and Ireland were opening to travel “more slowly” compared with other countries.

“They are terrified to allow people to travel but I think it will be resolved,” he said, adding he believed the UK would join the EU’s proposed digital certificate travel scheme, which will potentially be in use by July 1.

Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Britain but also in Portugal, particularly in Lisbon, mostly due to the Delta variant. O’Leary said the increase in cases would not have a big impact on Ryanair.

“There might be some disruption in Lisbon but we think it will be reasonably small and it won’t last long because of the vaccinations taking place all over Europe,” O’Leary said. (Reporting by Catarina Demony, writing by Victoria Waldersee and Catarina Demony; editing by Jason Neely and Jane Merriman)

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