Why Ancillary Revenue Is Crucial For Airlines

Global airline ancillary revenue is due to exceed USD$100 billion in 2019. It’s a river of gold that has come from nowhere in the space of a generation. In the last ten years, airline ancillary revenue has increased fivefold. It is having a significant impact on how airlines operate and market themselves.

Ancillary revenue is now a big part of the airline industry business model. Photo: Josh Sorenson via Pexels.

What is ancillary revenue?

Ancillary revenue comes from all the little extras you pay; the seat selection, the extra bags, the extra legroom, and those out of mealtimes snacks. There are also contributions from frequent flyer schemes, cobranded credit credits, insurers, and hotel partners.

The industry broadly groups ancillary revenue into two categories; frequent flyer and commission-based revenue, and a la carte revenue. A la carte revenue literally includes the stuff you pay for as the trolley comes down the plane’s aisle, but also all the add ons you buy on top of the base airfare.

Of the USD$100 billion-plus expected to flow into airline’s coffers this year, some 69% is derived from a la carte activity and the remainder from frequent flyer and commission-based revenue. This proportion does vary across regions and airline type.

As fares keep falling, airlines are looking for new ways to increase revenue. Photo: Delta News Hub

Dan Reed writing in Forbes notes that the five biggest US carriers will generate over USD$29 billion in ancillary revenue in 2019. Airline passengers have quickly come to accept the reality of ancillary revenue, but that doesn’t mean they like it.

IATA estimates USD$899 billion will be spent on airfares in 2019. Ancillary revenue will account for 12.2% of global airline revenue or USD$23.91 per passenger

Ancillary revenue represents a shift in the way the airline industry works

That the aviation industry is shifting from all-inclusive bundled fares to base fares to which you add your desired services – the a la carte model, both the high cost and lack of disclosure surrounding some of the a la carte items is a sore point with many passengers. The issues surrounding the egregious cost of bags slightly above weight limits on many airlines is a case in point.

And the trend isn’t just restricted to low-cost carriers. We see it on full-service airlines like British Airways where seat selection is no longer free. It is even creeping into premium cabins where some airlines to beginning to experiment with unbundled fares in business class.

Why is ancillary revenue important?

The broad answer is because it is worth a lot of money. But there is more to it than just that. IdeaWorks and Cartrawler have published a paper on airline ancillary revenue. It is no secret that the aviation industry is characterized by susceptibility to economic downturns, high operating costs, and downward pressure on fares.

By broadening their range of revenue streams away from bundled airfares, airlines are attempting to hedge against this. While Ryanair might drop the base fare between X and Y and advertise that fact, getting some bums on seats, their bag costs, seat costs, sandwich costs and all the other costs remain the same. In addition to increasing, these ancillary revenue streams have proved remarkably stable in recent years.

Even full-service airlines are starting to unbundle airfares and focus on ancillary revenue. Photo: Delta News Hub

Full-service carriers with comprehensive frequent flyer schemes can collect revenue via ventures with financial institutions, hotels, car rental companies, supermarkets, insurance, gas stations, the list goes on. It is getting to the point where almost every transaction you make can be linked to a frequent flyer account, generating points for yourself and ultimately revenue for the airline.

Ideaworks notes that the role of ancillary revenue is transforming how the airline industry operates. Despite the economic and operating challenges the airline industry faces, ancillary revenue keeps rising. It is a pot of gold for the airlines. For passengers, it is something we will have to learn to live with – if not like.