Low Cost Carriers - Evolution, Strategies and Performance

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 35 Pages

Business economics - Business Management, Corporate Governance



Table of Figures

1. Introduction

2.1. Southwest - the “role model” for all low-cost carriers
2.2. Other LCCs in the United States
2.3. Evolution of LCCs in Europe

3.1. Cost Leadership
3.2. Differentiation
3.3. Focus

4.1. Cost Leadership
4.2. Differentiation
4.3. Focus

5. Marketing Strategies

6. Performance of major Low-Cost Carriers
6.1. Growth and volumes in terms of sales and passengers
6.2. Profitability in terms of operating and net margin
6.3. Shareholder value measured with stock price performance
6.4. Performance of low-cost carriers versus full-service carriers
6.5. Future outlook of the aviation sector

Appendix I
Appendix II
Appendix III
Work cited


Figure 1: Generic Strategies by Porter

Figure 2: Competition Scopes

Figure 3: Passengers carried in Europe

Figure 4: Sales Development of LCCs

Figure 5: Airline Operating Margins 2001

1. Introduction

In the last three decades low-cost carriers (hence forward referred to as LCCs) have captivated travellers by making the world smaller through cheap short-haul flights. Travellers in the United States have benefited from this concept since the 1970s; whereas, the development in Europe has been much more recent. Lately, LCCs have been quite a hot topic especially since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Many LCCs have amazed investors with their financial performance, as they successfully earned profits in a time when most conventional carriers reported major losses. In Europe, LCCs have entered the market in order to gain market share and to take part in the success of the business. In Germany, the LCC market has taken off with the emergence of two new carriers in the end of 2002.

To best understand the low-cost concept, the evolution of LCCs in the United States and in Europe is examined in the second chapter. Furthermore, the background of the most successful LCC Southwest, still being the role model for other LCCs, is presented. In the third chapter the competition theory of Michael Porter is discussed in order to be able to analyse the competitive strategies followed by the LCCs in the chapter four. The fifth chapter gives a brief outline on the most striving marketing strategies among LCCs. Marketing strategies are examined in the fifth chapter. The performance of LCCs is analysed in the sixth chapter, and a comparison to the performance of conventional carriers is conducted. An outlook for the future can be found in chapter seven.


The creation of airlines with a business profile based on low fares appears to be quite new in Europe, and especially in the German market. However, it has a longer history in the United States; therefore, it is not surprising that most of the recently founded European LCCs are following the business model from the American company Southwest Airlines.

2.1. Southwest - the “role model” for all low-cost carriers

The Air Southwest Company was founded in 1967 by Rollin W. King and Herbert D. Kelleher, and incorporated as Southwest Airlines in Texas. It commenced operations with three Boeing 737 aircraft on June 18, 1971 with flights connecting three interstate destinations - Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. After adding five more destinations to their system map in 1976 and the company’s initial public offering in 1977, they began service to New Orleans in 1979, the first city outside of Texas being served by Southwest.[1] The steady growth of the airline was also enhanced by the deregulation process in the U.S. airline industry in the late 1970s. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 eased the entry of new companies into the market, and gave them the freedom to set their own fares and fly whatever domestic routes they chose.[2]

Today, Southwest Airlines is the fourth largest major airline in the Unites States, and provides primarily short-haul, high frequency, point-to-point and low-fare service, carrying more than 64 million passengers to 58 different cities in 30 states. The company’s fleet as of October 17, 2002, consists of 370 Boeing 737 jets. According to Southwest, they are the only airline making steady profits in the last 29 years of operation. Of the nine major U.S. airlines, only Southwest has posted a profit during the fourth quarter and full year of 2001, which was approximately $511 million. Furthermore, it was the only carrier that kept its capacity and staffing levels intact after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. These results could only be achieved because of Southwest’s cost advantage over other airlines, resulting in unrivalled low-fares for their customers.

Southwest has implemented several cost-effective approaches, which allow savings to be passed along to the consumer. They do not offer full cabin service, provide only “coach-class” service without free meals, and operate one type of aircraft and engine. Southwest Airlines uses a direct method of distribution, selling tickets directly to the traveller, bypassing travel agents and reducing the costs associated with commission incentives. In 2001 over 85 percent of their seats sold were ticket-less, and over 45 percent of their revenue was generated through the company’s website, eliminating significant processing costs.[3] Southwest Airlines also offers point-to-point transportation by using smaller, less congested airports, and does not operate within a hub system like other major U.S. airlines. It is also a stand-alone carrier with no alliances or partnership agreements with other domestic or international airlines. Another key factor for its success is the company’s culture, which allows the employees to participate in the company’s success, thus attracting flexible and highly motivated staff creating a customer friendly environment.[4]

2.2. Other LCCs in the United States

Not surprisingly, Southwest Airlines’ successful business model did not remain undiscovered for long, and rapidly found many imitators. Over the last two decades several airlines and new start-ups commenced airline service mainly based on the low-cost approach; however, only few were successful. Some of them, like People Express, Florida Express and National Airlines did not survive.[5] People Express, founded in 1981 in Newark/New Jersey, worked profitably for a few years, but got squeezed out of the market by American Airlines.[6] National Airlines stopped service in November 2002. Right now there are more than a dozen LCCs operating in the United States. AirTran Airways is currently performing well with a fleet of 67 aircrafts, and claims to be the second-largest low-fare airline in the United States.[7]

A recent start-up carrier that already achieved financial success in its second year of operation is JetBlue. Beginning service in February 2000, the airline attracted a lot of attention with its IPO in April 2000, and already has a fleet of 37 Airbus A 320 aircrafts. Different from other LCCs that try to avoid service features in order to save costs, JetBlue announces that every aircraft is outfitted with leather seats and with free satellite television at every seat.[8] The airline carefully cultivates their image as a hip and stylish airline, and their mission “bringing back humanity to air travel” seems to work. In 2001 they achieved sales of $320.4 million, and net profit of $38.5 million.[9]

Another business rival for Southwest are the national carriers, which are establishing subsidiaries based on the low-cost model. Delta Airlines Inc., America’s third biggest airline, announced in November 2002 the launch of its own LCC in 2003, beginning service with 36 Boeing 757 aircraft.[10]

2.3. Evolution of LCCs in Europe

Within Europe, the last stage of a three-phase, ten-year deregulation process concerning air traffic, took place in the mid-1990s, thus roughly one decade later compared to the United States. Today European airlines have the right to operate flights between two countries, different from their home countries, on condition that they meet certain financial and technical standards. Until that time, the market was divided between scheduled and charter carriers. Scheduled carriers controlled 75 percent of the inter-European market, and charter carriers held the remaining 25 percent by selling tickets to tour-operators and individual tourists.[11]


[1] Southwest Airlines (2001a).

[2] Wells (1999), pp. 68-74.

[3] Southwest Airlines (2001a).

[4] Doganis (2001a), p. 133.

[5] Doganis (2001a), p. 128.

[6] Financial Times Deutschland (2002b), p. 29.

[7] AirTran Airways (2002).

[8] JetBlue (2002).

[9] Handelsblatt (2002a).

[10] Handelsblatt (2002f).

[11] McKinsey (2002), p.2.


ISBN (eBook)
File size
715 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Cologne – Business Planning and Logistics
1,7 (A-)
Cost Carriers Evolution Strategies Performance Global Competition Aviation Industy



Title: Low Cost Carriers - Evolution, Strategies and Performance