Ryanair of Ireland is now the world’s biggest international airline by passenger numbers, carrying 81m people last year. Budget airlines round the world, from Southwest in the United States to AirAsia in Malaysia, have succeeded where Laker failed by sticking to shorter routes
Now, a fresh attempt to undercut the incumbents on long-haul routes is beginning. Norwegian Air Shuttle, a low-cost carrier that has been expanding rapidly across Europe, has begun flying across the Atlantic and to Thailand. Next March Wow Air, an Icelandic carrier, will start flights on routes such as Boston to London, via Reykjavik, with introductory prices as low as $99 one way.
In Laker’s day, the fuel burned by long-haul planes made up a large proportion of the cost of operating the flights. That made it hard for budget carriers to find enough cost savings elsewhere to cut prices sufficiently to tempt flyers to switch from carriers offering more comforts.
This is now changing, with the launches of some new and far more fuel-efficient planes: Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, already in the air, Airbus’s A350, which will start flying within weeks
However, there are some things that budget airlines find harder in long-haul than on short routes. The combination of long routes, time differences and airports’ night curfews can make it harder to turn planes around quickly. Overnight layovers mean paying for crews’ bed and board.
Selling enough tickets to fill a medium-sized “widebody” plane like the 787 several times a week, and thus to run a reasonably frequent service, is a lot harder than filling the smaller “narrowbodies” the budget airlines typically use on short routes
High-cost airlines have a little breathing-room, for now. When the skies are filled with swarms of them, fares should hit rock-bottom and Laker’s dream may finally come true