What Makes A Low Cost Carrier?

Since their inception, low-cost carriers have strived to bring the world closer together by making air travel affordable for everyone. While they may not always offer the luxurious amenities of full-service carriers, budget airlines provide a practical solution when traveling on a budget. Let’s take a look at some of their defining characteristics.

Southwest Airlines is the world’s largest low-cost carrier. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Low fares

As their name suggests, arguably the most important characteristic of a low-cost airline is that they offer a cheaper means of travel. As such, budget carriers endeavour to gain larger shares of the market on a given route by offering the cheapest fares along the corridor.

This often results in eye-catching, low prices, with airlines sometimes even managing to undercut rail fares on certain routes. This is certainly the case for Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair, which is known for offering basic fares as low as £9.99 ($14.13).

Meanwhile, Hungarian budget airline Wizz Air‘s “relentless focus on costs” sees its fares start around the $21 mark. Both of these carriers European, and Simple Flying explored why low-cost carriers here are generally cheaper than their US counterparts last year.

What Makes A Low Cost Carrier?
Icelandic startup PLAY offered free tickets to celebrate its launch. Image: PLAY

Such low fares represent a manifestation of the democratizing effect that budget carriers have on air travel. However, sometimes airlines will go one better, by offering free tickets! Icelandic startup PLAY has recently been in the news for doing so to celebrate its launch. However, these are, of course, in limited supply, and not to be expected as the norm.

Additional fees

As nice as the low fares are, you should be careful to check what you’re getting for your money. After all, one way that low-cost carriers can accommodate such low basic fares is by implementing additional charges for certain service features.

For example, Ryanair’s ‘Value Fare,’ while generally nice and cheap, only offers passengers the bare minimum in terms of hand luggage (one small carry-on bag), and a place on the flight. Anything else is subject to extra charges. These cover aspects like a second cabin bag, checked luggage, seat selection, priority boarding, and booking flexibility.

Ryanair Fees
Additional charges can quickly add up, and even exceed the price of the flight itself. Image: Ryanair

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In fairness, these fees are not limited to low-cost carriers. Indeed, some full-service airlines have begun to implement a similar model in response to the stiff competition provided by low-cost airlines. This has led to criticism, with Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker reportedly comparing British Airways to a budget carrier for making passengers pay for food.

Point-to-point networks

Another defining feature of many low-cost carriers is that they generally operate a point-to-point network structure. This allows them to directly connect more cities within its network, and establish a concrete presence by opening more bases. For example, while easyJet has its HQ in the UK, it also has hubs across Europe thanks to its subsidaries.

easyJet Switzerland Getty
easyJet has an extensive point-to-point European network. Photo: Getty Images

Meanwhile, many full-service carriers prefer to operate a hub-and-spoke model, with traffic concentrated through a focal point at the airline’s main base. For example, while passengers flying from Manchester to Gothenburg can do so directly with Ryanair, the same journey with British Airways would require a change at London Heathrow.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the airline industry, there were fears that the age of low-cost air travel might come to a close. Indeed, the head of IATA worried that the need to socially distance passengers would prevent airlines from offering bargain fares. However, these carriers have often been the keenest to expand, even amid the present challenging climate. As such, it is probably fair to assume that this way of travel is here to stay.

Which low-cost carriers have you flown with? Do you have a favorite? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!