New age low fare carriers – great value for money and a far cry from RyanAir

About two weeks ago, Air India announced it was going to extend its low cost operation Air India Express in to the domestic market. Across Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites I detected a snigger from many fellow aviation bloggers and enthusiasts – Air India, a national carrier going low cost ? How low can Air India fall ?

It got me thinking, what is the benchmark of a low cost carrier?

Surely this poor view must have come from impressions of RyanAir – an organisation so cheap that it will even sell lavatory facilities or standing room tickets given the chance.

Where do carriers like Southwest Airlines or JetBlue or Virgin America stand? How do these “low fare” carriers compare to the US legacy carriers like American, Continental, Delta, United, and US Air, especially in light of the latter’s service cutbacks and “ala carte” pricing?

How do Indian “low fare” carriers IndiGo, SpiceJet, JetLite, Jet Airways Konnect compare to other airlines in the US, or European or Asian low cost/low fare counterparts?

I search of answers I embarked on a two week quest. The answers in my comparison study revealed some very interesting results.

Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin America, EasyJet and most Indian “low fare” carriers like SpiceJet and IndiGo compare favourably to their “full service” counterparts.

What did surprise me, is despite it’s “charge for everything” approach, RyanAir does not offer a significantly lower fare than it’s other low fare competitors. Is the RyanAir myth just a creation?

Airline Seat Pitch Seat Width Food Beverage Water Baggage Airport Check-in One-way fare
SpiceJet 32” 17” Buy Buy Free 20kg / 44 lbs Free $65.90
IndiGo 30” 17.7” Buy Buy
No hot bev
Free cups. Bottle $0.60 20kg / 44 lbs Free $65.90
Kingfisher Red 31” 17.8” Free Free Free 25kg / 55 lbs Free $67.94
JetLite 31” 17” Buy Buy 1 Bottle Free 25kg / 55 lbs Free $67.94
Jet Airways Konnect 30” 17” Buy Buy 1 Bottle Free 25kg / 55 lbs Free $67.94
Southwest 33” 17” NA Free Free 2 pc Free $285.70
JetBlue 34” 17.8” Free Snacks Free Free 1 pc $2 $209.60
Virgin US 32” 17.7” Buy Free Free $15 / pc Free $225.60
EasyJet 29” 18” Buy Buy Buy 20kg / 44 lbs Free $137.75
RyanAir 30” 17” Buy Buy Buy Pay Pay $157.35
Legacy (AA CO DL UA US) 31” 18” Airbus or 17” Boeing Buy Free Free Per Bag 1st$20 2nd$30
Free $333.60
Air Asia 30” 17” Buy Buy Buy Kg. Slab 15$1.50 20$16.50 25$31.44 Free $56.00
  • One way fare was checked for a flight of approximately 2 hours flying time with a six day advance purchase.
  • RyanAir does not provide details. However their Boeing 737-800 aircraft configuration is the same 189 all economy seats as most other low fare carriers.
  • Indian carriers are prohibited from serving alcohol on domestic flights so beverage comparison is limited to non alcoholic drinks only. Most US and European carriers charge for alcoholic beverages.
  • EasyJet charges for baggage check-in and these fees are included in the fare.

Compared to most of the full service legacy carriers across the world, these value carriers offer a fantastic product in terms of value for money. When compared to legacy carriers in the United States in most cases value carriers offer superior services right from the booking to on-board the flight, newer aircraft, and many more included services like baggage allowance and airport check-in, for free in their bouquet.

With the cutbacks in service levels, the introduction of a-la carte pricing coupled with reasonably high fares, should the legacy carriers in the United States be even considered “full service” any more? The answer is a resounding no.

In Europe too, some legacy airlines like British Airways are beginning to experiment the US in service level cutbacks, and will soon feel the pinch of the value carrier even harder.

The expectations from a value carrier is in many ways dictated by the service levels of a full service carrier. In most Asian countries, two factors come in to play.

First is the lack secondary airports, thereby making the airport cost structure the same for the value carrier when compared to the full service carrier. Value carriers have narrower options to obtain better efficiencies than their full service counterparts, which they achieve by :

  • turning around their planes faster. 30 minutes compared to 40~45 minutes
  • using a lean staff structure. Typically only one gate agent compared to four or five

and other techniques common to value carriers across the world like common aircraft type, single class cabin, less food, less waste, higher aircraft usage etc.

Second, the higher service levels of the legacy carriers in Asia forces the value carriers to offer a superior service and more “freebies”. Indian value carriers do not charge for over-sized luggage, unaccompanied minors service, and when connecting to international flights, offer their passengers a two piece baggage instead of the traditional 20 kg allowance.

In India, the only difference I could find between the full service carriers Air India, Jet Airways and Kingfisher was the availability of reading material, a hot meal on flights greater than one hour and free flow of beverages and water on board. The service levels of Kingfisher Red are almost the same as the regular Kingfisher with free hot snacks, mileage accrual, reading material, in flight entertainment system, right down to a valet service, but then Kingfisher is the exception not the norm.

The value carriers like IndiGo and SpiceJet even have a “frequent flier” program for corporate travellers. Both airlines reserve their first five rows which have extra legroom, while SpiceJet adds a hot continental breakfast. GoAir too has introduced a concept of a “Business class” for an additional $20 where the legroom is increased to 34″, meals are complimentary, the middle seat is left vacant, free baggage allowance of 35kgs/77lbs, and rebooking fees are waived.

Traditional Indian hospitality, and the concept of Atithee (guest is greater than me) ensure smiling faces, helpful attitudes, and attentive service, regardless of airline.

I was rather surprised at the fares. Indian carriers have surprisingly low fares, despite facing fuel costs which are almost double that of the international rates, and infrastructure and equipment costs in line with international norms. It will be great to hear from some informed readers on the possible reasons other than sheer competition since both SpiceJet and IndiGo both appear to be making profit.

What is an airline? Is it a transport business? or is it a hospitality business?

For RyanAir and most US legacy carriers, it appears to be the former. For the luxurious Emirates and Singapore Airlines it is probably the latter, but the sweet spot appears to be somewhere in between, but regardless it always boils down to Quality, Cost, Delivery, Service i.e. offering your customer the maximum value for their money.

It will be great to hear from Bangalore Aviation readers on what differences you perceive between the “value” and the “full service” carriers.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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