Are Low Cost Airlines Really Cheaper To Fly? Are Legacy Carriers Better?

Submitted by News Desk on

Low cost airlines have been a part of our national aviation network for over three decades now, and more recently ultra-low cost carriers, ULCC, have come onto the scene over the past 15 years with the rise of Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant.  We wanted to know if passengers are really saving any money by buying a ticket on one these the ULCC instead of more traditional legacy carriers like American, Delta and United.  Here’s what we found.

We looked at ticket prices from Austin, Dallas/Forth Worth, and Houston, places where all three ULCC mentioned above fly to and all three legacy carriers also serve.  We researched prices to the top 10 destinations in the U.S. on each carrier, just the airfare.  We then did the same for the three legacy carriers.  On average, the ultra-low cost carriers were cheaper by about $31-$42 on average.  

But the price game doesn’t end there.  On the ultra-low cost carriers, you have to pay an extra fee to get a seat reservation (if you don’t, you’ll be randomly assigned one at the gate during boarding), and if you’re brining anything other than a purse or very small backpack, you’ll have to pay a carry-on fee as well on some ultra-low cost carriers.  On average these additional cost added up to $45 per ticket.  This means your $31 cheaper ticket is now $14 more expensive than the legacy carriers on average.

Checking a bag.  All ultra-low cost carriers have a checked bag fee, just like the legacy carriers, but the difference is legacy carriers have so many ways to get your bag checked for free, often a passenger won’t have to actually pay a checked bag fee.  Both types of airlines charge on average $30-$45 bucks per bag, assuming you didn’t get your checked bag fee waived for one of the many programs, rewards and loyalty perks available with legacy airlines or their affiliate partner programs.

The experience.  Both use a long cylindrical tube with sticks on each side to transport you from one location to the other, in fact, they are usually the exact same type of aircraft.  But how it’s arranged inside can be very different.  The three legacy carriers offer business class, and some type of enhanced economy with more leg room and often extra service in addition to standard economy.  Seat pitch on most legacy carriers averages between 31-33 inches in economy.  As for the ultra-low cost carriers, seat pitch is on average 28-30 inches, and it is usually all economy class with no free service other than water or a small beverage.  On some ULCC’s though, you’ll need to pay extra for a beverage.

Service interruptions.  On an ultra lost cost carriers, many of their destinations are served just two or three times per week, once a day.  So if your flight cancels, there is often no recourse as the airline can not put you on another flight later than day, so you might be rebooked the following day or worse, later in the week if that location is served only a couple times a week.  On a legacy carrier, they often have multiple flights each day, either on their mainline service or one of their regional express carriers.  They also have other flights bound for other hubs they operate.  This gives the legacy carriers a much easier time finding you a new route to your destination the same day, and sometimes only a few minutes later than you were originally scheduled.

But, if you’re just taking short flight where you don’t mind being packed in like a sardine, and have no bags at all, a flight on an ultra-low cost carrier could be the one for you.  Typically, ULCC’s carry leisure travelers who are more price sensitive compared to business travelers.  Reward programs on ultra-low cost carriers are fairly limited to free tickets with lots of restrictions and free on-board snacks.  

Legacy carriers attract many travelers because of their frequent flier programs, which are considerably more expansive and useful than the ultra-low cost carriers.  On legacy carriers you can earn and use your points on any other airline within that airlines alliance, like One World, Star Alliance or Sky Team, each of which have partner carriers from around the world that you can use your points on to get free tickets and upgrade.  You often can use your reward points for other  things as well like rental cars, hotel rooms, electronics purchases and event tickets.

If you’re looking to earn rewards beyond the basics and want more flight options, book yourself onto a legacy carrier.  Both have had horrible reputations for customer service, and both have had good service.  Spirit, once known as the “Wal-mart of the skies”, has worked to shed its “your just cattle” treatment of passengers and has been working hard on improving customer service.  American Airlines has a reputation among some as the rudest in-flight service for a legacy carrier as flight attendants are bitter while they slug out their merger details hatred and their distaste for upper management is clear and obvious, all of which show up in the quality of service.  Meanwhile United has worked hard to stop dragging passengers off overbooked flights, completely overhauling their policy on how “overbooked” a flight can be, and in the event it happens, offers up to $10,000 in compensation for those who were denied boarding.  Delta seems to have flown without any major bad customer service PR, good job Delta, although they are known to have a pretty old fleet of aircraft.

When it comes to safety, all the carriers, the ultra-low cost like Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, along with the low cost carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue, and the legacy carriers American, Delta and United and many other such as Hawaiian and Alaska, have to meet the exact same safety standards set out by the FAA, and all three types of carriers have very good safety programs to ensure you’re flight will be safe regardless of what type of service you receive.

In conclusion, an ultra-low cost carrier is not necessarily a bad route to go, but if you’re buying a ticket on an ULCC only because you think you’re saving money, you’re usually going to find once you factor in all the fees, your total ticket price is going to be about the same.  So it really just comes down to all the other factors like number of flights per day, rewards programs, comfort and customer service.  Which one you value more is a personal choice, so there’s really no one way to say which type of flying is better.