The great global LCC network strategy comparison; 11 of the world’s best analysed and compared with two years ago editor Ralph Anker

This article is based on editor Ralph Anker’s presentation to the World Low Cost Airlines Congress 2010 in London 30 September. If you want more analysis, you can download Ralph’s full presentation here.

Download the presentation

Two years ago undertook its first network comparison of 10 of the world’s leading low-cost airlines. So how have these leading carriers developed their networks since then? This week takes a closer look at 11 of the world’s most successful LCCs. These carriers are:

  • North America: AirTran, JetBlue, Southwest, Westjet
  • South America: GOL
  • Europe: easyJet, Ryanair
  • Middle East: Air Arabia (including Air Arabia Maroc and Air Arabia Egypt)
  • Asia-Pacific: AirAsia (including Thai AirAsia and Indonesia Air Asia), Tiger Airways (including Tiger Airways Australia), Virgin Blue (including Pacific Blue)

Although India and Mexico have their fair share of LCCs none of them, in our opinion, have yet truly established themselves as long-term survivors in the same way that the above 11 have.

The very different network strategies behind new low cost airline routes. Featured 2010 launches – Southwest is first into Northwest Florida Beaches in May, Ryanair launches its Malaga base in June, and Air Arabia Egypt begins flying between Alexandria and Abu Dhabi in July. In April the Maltese-baked easyJet Malta-Milan cake took an overwhelming 56% in’s Cake of the Week reader poll to celebrate the 150 new routes which marked the start of the summer season.

Southwest routes average greater than three daily flights

Southwest has the highest average route frequency of any of the LCCs studied. It operates flights predominantly on fairly dense city pairs where multiple daily frequencies are feasible. Its average weekly frequency on routes across its network is the equivalent of well over three daily flights. No route is operated less than daily while between Dallas Love Field and Houston Hobby Southwest operates around 160 weekly departures, or more than 22 daily flights.

Chart: Average weekly frequency per route

Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 29 September 2008 and w/c 27 September 2010

Most carriers have seen the average weekly frequency on routes decline since 2008. Virgin Blue’s average route frequency has fallen from more than three daily flights to just over two as it has added several low frequency routes. The two smallest carriers in this study, Air Arabia and Tiger Airways, have both increased average weekly frequency.

At the bottom of this ranking comes Ryanair who average just five weekly flights on each route. Just one of the over 1,000 routes it operates is served with more than four daily flights and that is the London Stansted to Dublin route which currently has 44 weekly departures. The airline now operates over 250 routes with just one or two frequencies per week.

Air Arabia and GOL at opposite ends of sector length rankings

Since our last study one pattern has clearly emerged; average sector length is increasing, even if only by 18 kilometres in the case of Southwest. Air Arabia still has the longest average sector length, now passing 2,000 kilometres. Four of the 11 LCCs have an average sector length of between 1100 and 1200 kilometres. Brazil’s GOL still has the lowest average sector length at under 900 kilometres.

Chart: Average sector length (km)

Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 29 September 2008 and w/c 27 September 2010

GOL’s short average sector length is influenced by the fact that its busiest route (198 weekly departures) between Sao Paulo (Congonhas) and Rio De Janeiro (Santos Dumont) is just 366 kilometres. The airline is also happy to promote journeys on its network that require several stops and possible aircraft changes. Air Arabia operates seven routes from its Sharjah base that are over 3,000 kilometres, led by Chittagong (3,696 km), Nairobi, Dhaka, Kiev and Istanbul.

Ryanair passes 1,000 routes mark

In just two years Ryanair’s network has grown by 400 routes from 629 to 1028. Given that many routes have been dropped the airline has started well in excess of 500 new routes in this period. easyJet has almost caught Southwest by increasing the size of its network by around 25% in two years.

Chart: Point-to-point routes

Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 29 September 2008 and w/c 27 September 2010

Air Arabia has grown its network by 62% (almost the same as Ryanair), while Southwest (+5.5%) and JetBlue (+18.3%) have been the most conservative in their network growth.

Europe’s LCCs have greatest network spread

Europe’s two largest LCCs are also the leaders when it comes to finding viable airports to operate from. Ryanair’s network has now passed the 150 airport mark, but has only seen a net gain of 13 airports in the last two years. easyJet has grown by 19 airports while WestJet has added 24 airports (mostly outside of Canada) and Air Arabia has added 19, mostly in Europe thanks to its Moroccan subsidiary.

Chart: Airports served

Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 29 September 2008 and w/c 27 September 2010

Southwest, in almost 40 years of profitable operations, currently operates from just 69 airports in the US. This will change once it completes its acquisition of local rival AirTran.

Southwest still twice as big as Ryanair

Two years ago Southwest operated almost three times as many weekly flights as Ryanair. Now the ratio is much closer to 2:1 as Southwest has actually marginally reduced the number of flights it operates. In percentage terms Air Arabia has grown fastest in terms of weekly departures (greater than 80%) thanks to launching two subsidiaries in Morocco (May 2009) and Egypt (June 2010).

Chart: Weekly departures

Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 29 September 2008 and w/c 27 September 2010


  1. K.Veelayudan Nair says:

    Good report with simple analysis.

  2. Joost says:

    Could you also publish the charts with the new Southwest-AirTran entity included?

  3. It would be very interesting to know where in the world are the greatest gaps of routes without LCC’s?
    This means where are the best opportunities for new LCC’s start ups or new routes to open in the near future?

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