History of Budget Carriers

History of Budget Carriers

When did low-cost carriers come about? Who was the first airline to take off? And how did those fares get so low? Here's just a quick rundown of the history and genesis of low-cost air carriers throughout Europe.

To begin, in 1997 low-cost carriers took off with the deregulation of Europe's domestic travel markets. Prior to this move, national governments were empowered to reserve access to national airspace for their favored airlines. In practice, this allowed national "flag-carrier" airlines (like British Airways, Alitalia, Iberia, Air France, Lufthansa, and so on) to dominate local markets.

Once this liberalization took place, airlines could pretty much fly wherever they wanted to fly—the determination of routes became a matter for airlines to work out with airports, not national governments.

The Internet's ability to automate transactions—cutting out the middleman function of ticketing agents—in turn allowed airlines to run a tighter and more streamlined ship. In no time at all, cheap fares became the expectation.

In the late 1990s, low-cost carriers like Ryanair and easyJet expanded quickly. The model was quickly emulated, both successfully and otherwise, across Europe. The last decade has witnessed countless collapses and mergers.

While a short list of airlines with extensive route maps may occupy the first tier, smaller, regional airlines continue to find success with the low-cost model as well. In addition, new low-cost carriers continue to be launched, while at least one airline, Ireland's flag-carrier Aer Lingus, has switched from a conventional to a low-cost model.

Timeline: Some Key Dates

1985: Ryanair is established. The airline will become Europe's biggest and brashest low-cost carrier within the decade.

1991: Ryanair restructures along the lines of Southwest Airlines and the European low-cost airline model is born.

1995: EasyJet launches.

1997: Liberalization of European market allows budget airlines to really take off.

2002: SkyEurope (now defunct) becomes the first budget airline to launch from a country east of the former Iron Curtain.

2006: Aer Lingus leaves the oneworld alliance, a fact that completes its rebirth as a low-cost carrier. Aer Lingus is the first "flag-carrier" to make this jump.

2007: EasyJet and Flybe acquire airlines; Ryanair's bid to acquire Aer Lingus fails.

Consumer Response to Low-Cost Carriers in Europe

The popular response to the emergence of low-cost airlines has been dramatic. Within the space of a few years, short inexpensive weekend breaks have become standard practice for curious travelers across the continent.

In time, business travelers have also joined the party (at least on those low-cost airlines aiming to accommodate them, like Air Berlin), as have economic migrants jetting across Europe for temporary work assignments in the wake of the European Union's big enlargement in 2004.

Our Guide to European Budget Airlines

Today, there are dozens of low-cost carriers in Europe. Our survey consists of most of these, which fly to hundreds of airports in more than 50 European countries and territories as well as multiple countries on Europe's periphery. We've pared the list down just a bit, in turn omitting tiny airlines with miniscule route maps. We have included a number of airlines that operate as regional airlines with interesting route maps and fares just under those offered by normal flag-carriers.

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