Airline Capacity vs Airline Frequency – What Is Better?

Airlines need to keep a balance between having plenty of capacity and having plenty of frequency too. An excess of either, and the airline is not able to lean too much in one direction which could damage their value proposition to potential passengers. But which one is more important?

Southwest Emirates
An Emirates A380 waits for a common Southwest 737. Photo: Flickr

What is airline capacity?

Airline capacity is essentially how many seats the airline has available on any one route. Longer routes generally focus on capacity, as larger aircraft with bigger fuel tanks are required for the journey.

Airlines that mainly focus on capacity are:

  • Emirates with their fleet of Boeing 777-300ERs and A380s
  • Etihad and Qatar for the length of their routes
  • Singapore with their reach and operating the longest routes in the world.

Typically, an airline that focuses on capacity is also utilising the hub and spoke model as a strategy; ferrying passengers in from remote locations through a central hub, before heading off to their final destination.

Emirates A380 mid-air
Emirates offers huge capacity across its network, but few frequencies per day. Photo: Emirates

What is airline frequency?

Airline frequency is how many services in a set time period an airline may provide. Typically, these are found on shorter routes between two large urban destinations, with business passengers often demanding multiple flights throughout the day.

In Australia, for example, carriers operate up to 10 flights a day between Sydney and Melbourne. These flights are operated by smaller aircraft seating up to 200 passengers, such as Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s.

They are quick to turn around, easy to fill, and an ambitious airline can have one service leave for the same destination every hour. The airlines then offer ‘flexi-tickets’, tickets that allow passengers to just show up and go on any flight leaving for that destination that day.

Airlines that mainly focus on frequencies include:

  • All American carriers have a highly frequent domestic arm, focusing on dense routes such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, or New York to Chicago.
  • Jeju-Seoul, South Korea, is the densest route in the world, operated by Korean Air.

Typically an airline that focuses on frequency is also focusing on the point to point model.

Southwest airlines 737
With a huge fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft, Southwest is able to offer huge frequencies albeit at a reduced capacity. Image: Wikimedia

Which is better?

At first, it might seem that there is no clear answer… but if we look at airline aircraft buying trends, it paints a very clear picture.

Large capacity aircraft, like the A380 and the Boeing 747 are on the way out, with no new commercial passenger orders nor any plans for a new design. These aircraft were mainly deployed on large-capacity long haul routes.

Singapore a380, 737, planes, peels
A Boeing 737 is stalked by the much larger A380. Photo: Wikimedia

Conversely, short-haul capacity aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 has never been more popular. Airlines are desperate for more aircraft to be able to offer passengers more flexibility and more options. We even see this bleed over into long-haul aircraft design, with the Boeing 777X and Airbus A350 offering fewer seats, but still providing the extended range they demand.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.