* Higher passenger numbers offset increased oil costs
* Plans to buy 17 new passenger planes, CEO says earlier in week
* Airline’s Boeing plane crashed in March, planes still grounded
* Concerned about slowing global growth, weaker trend in cargo (Adds CEO’s comments earlier in week)
By Omar Mohammed
NAIROBI, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Rapidly growing Ethiopian Airlines saw a big rise in its operating revenue in the year to the end of June, as a surge in passenger numbers helped to offset the impact of higher fuel costs, the carrier told Reuters on Friday.
Africa’s biggest airline said operating revenue rose 17 percent in dollar terms while passenger numbers were up 14 percent.
In March, one of the airline’s Boeing planes crashed a few minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa en-route to Nairobi, killing all 157 people on board.
Like other airlines, Ethiopian has grounded its fleet of four Boeing 737 MAX while investigations continue following a similar accident in Indonesia five months earlier.
“In one of the most challenging years, we managed to continue our fast, profitable and sustainable growth,” the airline told Reuters, sharing its preliminary results for the period.
The full set of results is expected in the next two weeks, the company said.
CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told a local television station on Tuesday that the airline plans to buy 17 new passenger aircraft and launch flights to 11 new destinations.
But he said it was not yet clear when the MAX planes will be allowed to fly and the carrier was grappling with a lack of planes for expansion due to the grounding.
It flew 12.1 million passengers during the year to June, helping to cushion an increase in fuel costs of about 25 percent. Planes were three quarters full on average, a key performance measure for the industry.
Ethiopian said it offered 13% more seats per kilometre during the reporting period ending in June.
Tewolde warned that an economic slowdown due to the U.S.-China trade war could affect demand this year.
“The U.S. and China are our top markets and we are now seeing an impact on cargo services. The global cargo service has already showed a 7% decline and we expect the same trend... This is very concerning,” he told the television station on Tuesday.
Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle