Brittany Ferries plots recovery course, after worst year in decades

Brittany Ferries

Brittany Ferries has published some of the most disappointing figures in its history, following its AGM in St Pol de Leon, France. In a year dominated by the Covid crisis and amid on-going Brexit concerns, 2020 passenger numbers fell to less than a third of normal levels. Freight fared slightly better, with figures down by 20 percent. Company turnover halved, as lockdown measures and restrictions on travel in all markets forced passengers to stay at home.

Despite a dreadful 2020, the company is already plotting a course towards a brighter future. It has embarked on a robust five-year recovery plan to bridge the immediate crisis and prepare for a return to normal service.

It has also commissioned independent analysis of the passenger market by London-based consultancy LEK. Their findings suggest that passenger volumes are expected to have recovered to 2019 levels by 2022. Freight volumes are also expected to improve. Thanks to its five-year recovery plan – and with ongoing support from banks and French government – Brittany Ferries says it can therefore look beyond the current storm with optimism.

“In the last few years Brittany Ferries faced a double strike, firstly as a consequence of Brexit challenges and then as a result of Covid,” said Jean Marc Roué, company president. “On Brexit, the unfavourable Sterling-Euro exchange rate hit our bottom line. The value of Sterling plummeted directly after the 2016 vote and, since then, the company lost €115 million in potential income as the majority of revenue is generated in Sterling and costs come in Euros.

Brexit concerns also affected demand. Three potential dates for the UK’s departure from the EU in 2019 created uncertainty and anxiety in the marketplace and passenger numbers fell by 5%. Despite these challenges, we remained profitable.

However, last year, the Covid crisis brought our company to its knees. It struck a blow for the regions we serve and enrich, and the French seafarers we are proud to employ. Despite this, we are determined to remain part of the fabric of life in the north west of France as well as in the UK, Ireland and Spain and we must thank the regions of Normandy and Brittany, the banks and French state for their on-going support throughout this dark period. With a collective will to return stronger, I believe Brittany Ferries will overcome the greatest challenge in its history.”

Passenger numbers:

Last year, Brittany Ferries carried 752,102 passengers. That was less than a third of the total it would carry in a normal year. By comparison, in 2019 it carried 2,498,354 passengers across all routes.

PASSENGERS BY ROUTE 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020
ROSCOFF – PLYMOUTH 369,605 328,133 78,445
ST-MALO – PORTSMOUTH 349,002 325,198 89,052
CHERBOURG – POOLE 211,545 207,831 35,002
CHERBOURG – PORTSMOUTH 166,910 143,506 17,394
CAEN – PORTSMOUTH 929,929 914,380 357,675
LE HAVRE – PORTSMOUTH 145,524 157,814 32,022
Channel 2,172,515 2,076,862 609,590
IRELAND/FRANCE/SPAIN 97,174 120,193 19,822
UK/SPAIN 358,272 301,299 122,690
All lines 2,627,961 2,498,354 752,102


Around 85 percent of passengers are British. In 2019, the uncertainty of three potential Brexit deadlines created concern among passengers which hit demand for travel. Total passenger traffic fell by 5 percent in 2019 to 2,498,354. However, this dip was dwarfed by the 70% crash in passenger volumes last year, caused by government restrictions that prohibited international travel.

Around 80 percent of company income is generated through passenger traffic: the effect that travel restrictions had on turnover was therefore devastating. In 2020 the company turned €202.4 million, compared with €469m in 2019, a 57% decline.

Freight figures:

Brittany Ferries largely returned to its roots as a freight-only operation towards the end of last year. in total it carried 160,377 units in 2020, down around 20 percent on the previous year’s tally of 201,554. Market distortions were caused by stockpiling at the end of the Brexit transition period and amid concerns about new border controls and import/export processes. The Covid crisis also impacted freight volumes, albeit not as significantly as it did for passenger traffic.

FREIGHT ROUTES 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020
Units carried
ROSCOFF – PLYMOUTH 4,994 4,787 2,906
ST-MALO – PORTSMOUTH 9,596 9,450 3,522
CHERBOURG – POOLE 18,054 19,499 7,700
CAEN – PORTSMOUTH 100,265 101,220 95,245
LE HAVRE – PORTSMOUTH 30,962 23,255 8,907
CHANNEL 164,421 158,524 126,095
IRELAND/FRANCE/SPAIN 1,059 6,377 7,250
UK/SPAIN 39,921 36,653 27,032
ALL ROUTES 205,401 201,554 160,377


Highlights in 2020:

In an otherwise miserable year, there were some notable highlights for Brittany Ferries.

It won the third in a series of Brexit-related ferry contracts with the UK government (Department for Transport, DfT). This guaranteed DfT space aboard vessels to ensure the supply of essential goods like medicines in the event of potential chaos at short-sea ports on the Channel. As well as supporting routes like Le Havre to Portsmouth, these contracts reinforced the strategic significance of Brittany Ferries’ route network to national governments, as well as to local regions.

Thanks to the flexibility of its fleet the company was also able to meet demand from Irish and French hauliers to open direct routes connecting Ireland with France, thus avoiding the need to transport goods via the UK land-bridge.

The “ferroutage” multimodal project also progressed, reflecting a wider trend in the ferry sector to link ferry services with European rail routes. Work began on the SNCF rail network which will allow freight to be carried by train between Bayonne and Cherbourg. Freighter MV Cotentin made a welcome return to the fleet, in preparation for the project launch in 2022. She adds capacity to the route network and started operations by supporting DfT contracts in early 2021.­

In December 2020, the company welcomed its new ship Galicia to the fleet. This greener super-ferry, part of investment made before the Covid crisis struck, operates two weekly rotations between the UK and Spain and one from Cherbourg to Portsmouth. Like the ferroutage project, Galicia’s launch illustrates the company’s commitment to more environmentally friendly modes of transport and a drive towards energy transition.

Recovery plan:

Energy transition is one of the four pillars of an internal recovery plan that will deliver Brittany Ferries from the current crisis. The five-year plan spans the period in which the company is expected to pay back loans that have helped carry it through the bleakest summer and winter in decades.

Greener vessels are essential for the company’s future, both from the perspective of anticipated regulatory requirements and the expectations of its customers. Two further E-Flexer class vessels will join sister-ship Galicia in 2022 and 2023. Salamanca and Santoña will be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG) and the infrastructure to support LNG bunkering will begin construction in Bilbao this year in preparation for their arrival.

As well as energy transition, Brittany Ferries had reaffirmed its commitment to the French flag and French seafarers. It salutes all its employees for their support, understanding and hard work during an unprecedented period of disruption – and has called for all French seafarers to be recognised as essential workers.

The third pillar of Brittany Ferries’ recovery plan is the support it receives from farming cooperatives and its shareholders. The commitment and determination of Brittany Ferries’ founders, and the French farmers who continues to support it today, is reflected in a will to continue the journey taken by the company since 1972. Enriching regions, linking people and facilitating trade between nations is in the company’s DNA.

The final pillar of the plan re-states the imperative of profitability. This is essential if recovery is to be sustained. The pillar goes hand-in-hand with on-going support from the regions, banks and government for which the company is grateful.

Difficult decisions to limit costs have already been taken, for example delaying the opening of routes the company had planned to re-start in March 2021. However, the goal is always the long-term viability of Brittany Ferries and there is good news on the road ahead. Independent analysis has confirmed that, following short term shock, passenger demand is likely to return quickly to support a strong and sustained recovery.

Independent analysis

As part of recovery planning Brittany Ferries commissioned an independent review of the passenger market by London-based consultancy LEK. In a wide-ranging study, they looked at external evidence such as projections for the UK economic recovery and internal factos such as customer profiles. Its conclusions were encouraging both in relation to challenges posed by both Covid and by Brexit. A rapid and full recovery in passenger volumes is forecast within the next few years.

On Covid, LEK predict a return to 2019 volumes by 2022:

“The relative stability of Brittany Ferries’ passenger volumes over the last 12 years demonstrates resilience. It has an advantaged catchment area with customers who show high loyalty and repeat rates; 70% of bookings come from repeat clients, 27% from those who made more than nine reservations in the last three years.”

On Brexit, LEK suggest that concerns should be short-lived, noting that changes to the pet travel scheme are the only significant change for passengers. Pet travel accounts for around 6% of the company’s business. However, even this year, all pet-friendly cabins have already been booked for summer 2021 on UK-Spain routes.

“While some consumers are currently concerned about Brexit’s impact on travel, these concerns should reduce as they become aware that actual restrictions are likely to have limited impact in practice,” LEK concluded.

Commenting on the year ahead and the conclusions of the LEK study, Brittany Ferries’ chief executive officer Christophe Mathieu added, “There is no doubt 2021 will be another tough year for our company. However, we will continue on the path to recovery, taking tough decisions if necessary but encouraged by the findings of this independent report which show the market is ready to bounce back. 

We will always place the long-term interest of Brittany Ferries at heart and as long as we continue to be supported by our staff, shareholders, the banks, as well as by regional and national governments, I believe we can navigate a path through the storm. The future for Brittany Ferries can be as bright as the rich history which precedes it.”