The definitive guide of the world’s low-cost airlines
Whether you like it or not, the success of the low-cost model is undeniable and it has transformed the airline industry forever.
Profit margins are slim and fixed costs are huge. No-frills carriers have exploited the opportunity to charge their customers for all sorts of extras, such as meals, baggage allowance, seat selection, in-flight entertainment… while keeping their overall costs low and maximising benefits. They are also cheaper than traditional airlines in every sense, with shorter turnaround times (the time it takes to offload a flight and load the next one), flying to secondary airports, smarter fleet acquisition strategies, etc. They have created an efficient system where only one thing matters: lean profits. Of course, it is not without its problems, as recent flight crew/management tensions have shown, but nobody said they were perfect.
Traditional flag carriers, afraid of losing market share, are copying this business model with subsidiaries aimed at millennial travellers. And with the introduction of transatlantic flights in recent times, their future looks brighter than ever. So who are these airlines?
Well, there exists a list on Wikipedia already. But we thought we would compile our own list highlighting the most important low-cost airlines in the world, and with a special focus on UK customers.
UK to Europe
Both airlines are firmly established in the market, with extremely competitive fares and an extensive network with each serving over 30 countries. There must few flyers in Europe that have never been a passenger of an Easyjet or Ryanair flight. Scratch beneath the surface however, and you will soon see there are other airlines that are just as good, if not cheaper, on certain routes.
Norwegian Air Shuttle is the third largest low-cost airline in Europe in terms of passenger numbers. They are best for flights to Scandinavia, but fly to many other destinations too. They currently have Gatwick (LGW) as their UK hub, and also serve Manchester (MAN), Befast (BFS) and Edinburgh (EDI). One of their distinctive features is having free WiFi onboard.
Jet2 is essentially the beach holiday airline for Northern England. Headquartered in Leeds-Bradford (LBA), they link cities like Manchester (MAN), Newcastle (NCL), East Midlands (EMA)… to all the major holiday destinations like Alicante (ALC), Dubrovnik (DBV), Kefalonia (EFL), Paphos (PFO), Tenerife (TFS), etc. They are great if you live up north and want a holiday in the sun.
Wizz Air is the no-frills-whatsoever airline of choice for flights to Central and Eastern Europe. Their main hub in the UK is Luton (LTN). The Hungarian airline goes further deep into the eastern side of Europe than their competitors with flights to places like Chisinau (KIV), Kutaisi (KUT), Craiova (CRA) or Poznan (POZ). For some migrant communities in the UK, it is the only airline they can use to fly to their homeland.
Other airlines worth mentioning are:
Vueling*, IAG’s low-cost airline with many flights to Spain, especially their hub Barcelona (BCN). One great feature often overlooked is that you can use your Avios points with them.
Eurowings, Lufthansa’s subsidiary with cheap flights to Germany.
Blue Air, a low-cost airline from Romania which has gained a foothold in Liverpool (LPL) and London Luton (LTN).
Air Baltic, the state-owned Latvian carrier.
UK to North America
Low-cost transatlantic flights probably represent the biggest commercial battle ahead for low-cost airlines. While Wow Air have been serving flights to North America via Iceland for a while now, the real game changer was the introduction of direct flights to New York from London for £150 by Norwegian in 2014.
With such a great demand for transatlantic flights, other competitors did not wait long to follow a similar strategy. IAG and Air France-KLM quickly set up their own cheaper long-haul airlines by creating Level and Joon respectively. However, neither fly to the UK at the moment.
At the moment, Norwegian serves long-haul flights from Gatwick (LGW) to Denver (DEN), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), Oakland (OAK), Orlando (MCO) and Seattle (SEA). They continue to expand beyond North America with flights to Asia and Latin America.
Furthermore Air Canada Rouge, the Canadian low-cost carrier, has seasonal flights to Toronto (YYZ) from Gatwick (LGW), Manchester (MAN), Edinburgh (EDI), Glasgow (GLA)
UK to Africa and Middle East
Again, Ryanair and Easyjet dominate with flights to Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Turkey. You can also use Wizz Air with indirect flights to Azerbaijan, Israel and the UAE. Interestingly, Vueling have flights to North Africa, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana and Senegal via Barcelona.
Pegasus Airlines is a Turkish airline that flies to most major cities in Europe, including London and Manchester in the UK. Their hub is Istanbul’s secondary airport Sabina Gökçen (SAW), and are a cheap alternative for flights all over Turkey, as well as Dubai (DXB), Tel Aviv (TLV), the Caucasus and even Kazakhstan.
Air Arabia is a low-cost airline from Sharjah in the UAE. They have an extensive network across the Middle East, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia. From the UK, they have direct flights to Morocco from Gatwick (LGW) and Manchester (MAN).
Beyond the UK
There are, of course, many other budget airlines around the world that not operate flights to the UK. These are some of the biggest and most important.
Fly Dubai* is a huge low-cost airline based in Dubai (DXB), with flights across Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Air Asia is probably Asia’s most famous budget airline. Headquartered in Kuala Lumpur (KUL), Malaysia they operate flights to over 165 destinations in over 25 countries. However, they were not able to establish themselves in Europe and pulled their London and Paris routes in 2012. Maybe it is time for them to reconsider and come back?
Cebu Pacific is a very well known low-cost airline based in Manila (MNL), Philippines.
Nok Air is a budget airline based in Don Mueang airport (DMK) and is a owned by Thai Airways.
Scoot is based at Singapore Changi (SIN) and is owned by Singapore Airlines.
HK Express is the biggest low-cost airline operating out of Hong Kong (HKG).
IndiGo is India’s best known budget airline and the seventh biggest airline in Asia. They fly to over 40 destinations in India.
Virgin Australia is Australia’s second biggest airline after Qantas. They fly to 52 destinations in several countries. They are based in Brisbane.
The controversial but still popular Spirit Airlines is the biggest budget airline in the United States.
Fastjet is a group of low-cost carriers in Africa with subsidiaries in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.