In my opinion, one of the more interesting trends in modern transportation systems is the emergence of the budget airline as an effective and reliable means of transportation. Passenger airlines have been around for decades, but these companies have typically marketed themselves as the providers of a luxury service that includes novelties such as complementary meals served by flight attendants. Only recently has the low-cost business model truly taken hold, with companies such as Southwest and JetBlue in the US and Ryanair and EasyJet in Europe. It has been so effective, in fact, that many large, “traditional” carriers have, with mixed success, tried their hand at the establishment of low-cost subsidiary airlines.
When it comes to the success of the low-cost airline business model, the question “How do they do it?” inevitably comes to mind. The answer: In a nutshell, by cutting costs.
Before I delve into explaining how these companies do cut costs, I’d like to offer the assurance that this cost-cutting business strategy in no way implies that low cost airlines are unsafe. Budget airlines, like any airline, must comply with national and international safety standards. In fact, for reasons to be explained later, many low-cost airlines have fleets primarily composed of fairly new planes.
How then do these airlines cut costs? Budget airlines utilize a variety of cost-cutting techniques in order to provide lower fares to their customers. Although some of these techniques are directly visible to the customer, many of them are behind-the-scenes and deal with internal company workings. Here are a few examples of cost-saving techniques that budget airlines use:
- Perhaps the most obvious way in which low-cost airlines save money is by eliminating “luxury” customer services, such as complimentary in-flight food services. Exactly what services are cut varies from carrier to carrier. Many budget airlines have only economy class seating (more seats = more revenue), and allow seat reservation only at an additional charge. The uniformly arranged cabin operates on a first-come, first-served basis. This simplification reduces the number of personnel required to clean a plane and eliminates the need for expensive ticket-booking software. In addition, budget airlines often place strict limits on passenger baggage. This allows them to speed up the loading process and charge for extra bags/weight.
- Another major way that budget airlines save money is by cutting labor costs. This can be done by training employees to perform multiple tasks. For example, a flight attendant may help to clean the plane after a flight, or a pilot may help load baggage.
- Low-cost carriers can also save money by only selling tickets to customers directly through their website or ticket counter, instead of through travel agents and third-party websites. This technique of “avoiding the middleman” allows airlines to earn the sale price (less tax) of a ticket without some portion of the sale price going to another party.
- Because fuel represents a large portion of an airline’s operating cost, airlines employ several techniques to reduce their fuel costs and fuel-associated costs. For example, because longer flights require more fuel, budget airlines typically fly short, direct flights rather than long flights with many connections that require passengers to transfer planes en-route. Because the price of jet fuel fluctuates greatly, low-cost airlines also speculate on the price of fuel. When the price of fuel is low, an airline may enter an agreement with a fuel provider to “lock in” a certain price for a specified length of time, wagering on the expectation that fuel prices will rise over that period of time. Airlines Budget airlines have typically had great success saving money in these ways.
- Budget airlines also choose flight routes that save them money. This often means flying to secondary airports rather than a city’s main airport. Secondary airports typically charge carriers a smaller fee for using their facilities, even if they are no further from the city than the main airport. (This airport fee can also be reduced by scheduling flights at off-peak hours, such as the early morning.) In addition, as explained above, low-cost airlines also typically offer primarily point to point service, rather than having a main hub that serves as a transfer point for a large number of flights. This decreases the miles flown (think gas) while maximizing the number of flights offered. In addition, by limiting the number of connections, budget airlines reduce the frequency of compounded flight delays. This reduced “turn time” allows low-cost carriers to schedule more flights per day, which earns them additional revenue. (The lack of complementary food service and the cross-training of staff also decrease “turn time.”)
- One of the most effective techniques that budget airlines use in order to cut costs is the utilization of a homogeneous fleet of fairly new airplanes. In the airline industry, maintenance is an especially costly necessity. In fact, many engine companies make no money (or even take a loss) on the sale of a new engine, but generate the majority of their revenue through the maintenance and repair of aging engines. For this reason, it is in the best interest of airlines to decrease their maintenance costs as much as possible. By having only one or a few types of planes in their fleet, budget airlines can avoid buying and stockpiling costly spare parts for numerous plane models. Low-cost airlines typically purchase new planes and resell their “old” planes after only several years of heavy use. The large amount of flight time that these planes have seen (due to quick “turn time”) and the moderate resale value of the planes make up for the cost of constantly purchasing new planes. An additional benefit to using only one type of plane is that budget airlines only need to train their pilots and maintenance crews to operate and repair one type of plane. (Some low-cost airlines even train their own staff.) This saves on labor costs, and increases “turn time.”
The advent of the budget airline may herald a new era of global transportation. In the 19th century, the steam locomotive revolutionized the way people thought about transportation by making it possible for many poor and middle class people to move great distances. This fundamental change in the world’s notion of a transportation system helped to restructure society itself. In many ways, the automobile had the same effect a century later. Will the airplane be the revolutionary technology of the 21st century? If the plane becomes easily accessible to vast numbers of people who could previously not afford air travel, one can only guess what effect it will have. It will challenge not only our ideas about transportation, but also our concept of the world itself.