Easyjet has revealed that fewer than half of UK flights for this summer have been booked as customers leave it late to arrange trips.

The budget airline said capacity for the usually lucrative July-September period was just 44% sold, down from 69% in the same period in 2019 before the pandemic.

It said customers “are currently booking much closer to departure due to market conditions” – echoing recent comments from rival travel operator Jet 2.

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Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said people should expect travel disruption and should book holidays accordingly.

Booking rates on flights taking off or landing in the UK had been lower than for intra-EU travel “due to the uncertainty around government restrictions”.

“Easyjet expect this to improve quickly as restrictions are lifted over the coming period,” the carrier said.

The airline also published a survey suggesting public backing for COVID tests to be scrapped for fully vaccinated travellers returning from countries that are not on the “red” destinations list.

Its chief executive Johan Lundgren has consistently argued that the tests – about £400 for a family of four – risk pricing ordinary consumers out of holidays.

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The airline’s third quarter results, covering the three months to the end of June, showed it made a headline pre-tax loss of £318m, an improvement on the £347m loss reported during a period last year that covered the first lockdown.

Easyjet said it flew 17% of its pre-pandemic capacity during the quarter, slightly ahead of expectations at a time when for the most part its fleet was grounded, but expects to ramp this up to 60% during the current fourth quarter.

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France’s restrictions bring travel turmoil

That helped push shares about 2% higher in early trading.

Easyjet also paid out a further £122m of customer refunds, taking the total bill to £1.2bn so far during the pandemic.

The airline said it has been switching capacity away “from UK-touching to EU-touching” flights this summer – with two-thirds of bookings presently coming from Europe, compared to a typical 50/50 split.

It said: “As a result of the current divergence in government travel policies, easyJet’s bookings for this summer are heavily skewed towards continental Europe.”

But the airline also said it had been responding to changing UK rules, with 60,000 extra seats and two new routes to Malta added when it was put on the “green” travel list and capacity for “amber” list countries such as Portugal, Spain, Greece and Cyprus topped up when quarantine rules were eased earlier this month.

“We remain confident about demand for travel this summer and into autumn, due to the bookings surges experienced following selective easing of travel restrictions,” easyJet said.

Travel rules were further thrown into confusion last week when the government said fully vaccinated travellers returning from France would – unlike those coming from other “amber” list countries – still have to quarantine on their return.