Are no-frills transatlantic flights here to stay?

Budget airlines have been flying us across the Atlantic for over 40 years. We take a look at the major players and analyse what the future has in store.

By Josephine Price
Published 26 Sept 2019, 06:00 BST
Photograph by Alamy

When did budget transatlantic flights begin?
Founded in 1966 by British entrepreneur Freddie Laker, Laker Airlines was the first carrier to offer low-cost, no-frills transatlantic flights. Primera Air, Wow Air and Norwegian were among the airlines that adopted the business model in the ensuing decades. 

What do these no-frills offerings look like?
Well, first of all, forget the extras. Passengers pay for their seat only, with everything else — meals, luggage, drinks and choice of seat — at an additional cost. This scaled-back approach means passengers aren’t paying for, say, checked luggage if it’s not needed. 

Which airline is doing it particularly well?
There’s one standout carrier: Norwegian. It’s been honing this business model since 2013 and has grown from providing transatlantic for less to piecing together a web of low-cost routes that span North America, South America, Europe and Asia. At the Skytrax World Airline Awards in June 2019, Norwegian was named World’s Best Long-Haul Low-Cost Airline for the fifth consecutive year.

Have there been many notable failures?
Yes. Primera Air, the Scandinavian low-cost carrier, terminated business at the end of 2018 due to its failure to make the long-haul arm of the business profitable. The airline was looking to move from the charter flight model, which had lost its footing in Europe, and wanted to try something more attractive to customers — it didn’t succeed. Wow Air — the Icelandic no-frills option — had made inroads into the transatlantic market, too, but went under in March 2019. Ryanair hasn’t yet made it into the long-haul arena, either, despite promising to do so.

Is there much competition in this field?
Airlines such as Virgin and British Airways are now competing on fares directly with low-cost carriers. British Airways, for example, has cut costs by reducing leg room.

What do these cheap flights mean for sustainability?
With the price of jet fuel continuing to rise and consumers becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of flying, many airlines are facing an uncertain future. But the budget carriers don’t have the business and first-class options that bump up carbon emissions (the fewer seats on a flight, the larger the carbon footprint per passenger), so no-frills airlines are arguably a better choice.

What’s next for the no-frills market?
Not every no-frills airline is expanding at the moment. Norwegian has scaled back some of its transatlantic routes for the winter season, but the airline is believed to be exploring less crowded routes such as the UK to South Africa and South America. Lufthansa is also launching a host of new transatlantic routes, to be shared with its low-cost subsidiary Eurowings.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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