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Airline Competition 1980-2010 R.I.P.

Part 5 :  The demonstrated lack of growth in airlines to date

When Freddie Laker's pioneer discount airline Skytrain went bankrupt, its receivers filed suit, claiming the major airlines conspired to force Skytrain out of business. They secured a $60+ million settlement.

Part of a series on airline competition - see extra articles listed in the right hand column.



Economic textbooks are full of the theory of how monopolies and oligopolies can break the ideal balance between commerce and consumers.  While economists rarely agree on much, there is close to universal agreement that a few major companies dominating a market is a bad thing.

Let's take the theory and apply it to the reality of the airline industry and see how airline competition can now be controlled and suppressed by the existing dominant carriers.

The Two Issues Surrounding New Airline Startups

Any new airline today has to frame their business plan around two major issues.  The first issue is 'Are there any routes I can fly where I won't immediately attract deadly competition from existing airlines?'.

The second issue is 'When I am attacked by existing airlines, how will I withstand their competition and survive?'.

Choosing a Non-competitive Route

Recognizing the difficulties of competing, head to head, with major airlines, We have seen several airlines adopt this strategy, with varying measures of success.

It has become a cornerstone of some very successful airlines overseas (think Ryanair in particular) - airlines that fly either between secondary airports in major cities, and/or between secondary cities not currently served by nonstop flights.

Southwest Airlines - non traditional routings and subsequent success

In the US, the idea of operating secondary routes, and point to point rather than via hubs, has been a key part of Southwest Airlines' success, at least until the last decade or so.  Southwest historically has operated point to point flights, rather than hub and spoke flights, and has focused on providing more convenient and nonstop services to passengers who otherwise would have to take very much longer to fly first from their home airport to a major hub, then change planes and take a second flight on to their destination.

This has been a very clever move on Southwest's part, because it gives them a double advantage.  Assuming that a major airline doesn't choose to compete by scheduling matching nonstop flights (and that is usually a moderately fair assumption to make, due to the general commitment to the over-arching hub and spoke model by the major airlines), Southwest can easily beat any competitive pressure because on the one hand, its nonstop flight is more convenient, and on the other hand, its underlying costs to transport a passenger on a single short flight are greatly lower than the costs of the competing carrier that quite possibly has to fly the passenger more than twice as many miles, and on two flights rather than one.

Even if both airlines had the same cost per flight mile (and in the past Southwest's costs/mile have historically been significantly lower than those of the major dinosaur carriers, even though these days they are much more closely in line) the extra miles makes all the difference, making it easy for Southwest to match or undercut any competitive fare and still make a profit, while the other airline would be making massive losses.

Southwest - now part of the problem?

Southwest has several other advantages these days, too.  After, for many years, being ignored and treated with disdain by the major airlines, who too-proudly asserted that the flying public would happily pay a premium 30% or greater to fly on a dinosaur 'full service' airline rather than on budget Southwest, Southwest has grown so large (now the largest airline in the US in terms of passengers flown) that it now has critical mass and is no longer vulnerable to competitive attack.

If any other airline decided to play hardball with Southwest, it would find itself up against an airline with as much and probably much greater financial strength,  and at least as much route system resource as the other airline.  These days, in a competitive fight, Southwest could give as well as it gets, and quite possibly could ride the other airline down into oblivion.  So few airlines choose to directly compete with Southwest, and more commonly it is Southwest encroaching on other airlines (and generally winning the battle) than vice versa.

Southwest's route network has also evolved, and while it still has a great deal of point to point traffic, it has increasing emphasis on hubs for taking people greater distances than that possible on a single flight.

Southwest grew to become a major airline due to the major airlines ignoring Southwest, but now that its alternative approach to business has brought it size and success, Southwest is increasingly adopting similar strategies to those of the dinosaur carriers it now flies alongside, and can be considered every bit as much a competitive threat for other new carriers as are any of the other current airlines.

Skybus - a shortlived failure

We have seen other examples of flying secondary routes.  Shortlived low-cost airline Skybus (started flying in May 2007, ended in April 2008) embodied this strategy to the extreme, refusing to connect passengers from one flight to another (ie you'd have to take your bags off the carousel at the end of one flight, then go and recheck them (and yourself) for a second flight, and primarily operating between secondary airports only.

For example, they planned to offer flights between New York and Boston.  But the New York airport was to have been Stewart in Newburgh (almost 70 miles to the north of Manhattan), and the Boston airport was to have been Portsmouth, NH (almost 60 miles north of Boston).

Another strange airport choice was Bellingham, WA - supposedly this would serve Seattle (90 miles to the south) and Vancouver BC (50 miles plus a border wait of sometimes more than an hour to the north).

The good news was that Skybus did not attract direct competition from any other airlines.  The bad news was that, notwithstanding being the best capitalized airline startup ever ($160 million in startup capital and massive incentives to base themselves in Columbus, OH), the airline was out of business less than a year after its first flight.

There were many reasons why this particular airline failed, not just its crazy route system - engineered to avoid the major airlines and their major routes - but for sure its route system handicapped its ability to succeed.

Allegiant Air - A success story, but not a competing airline

Another example - this time a success story - of an airline that is succeeding at operating non-competitive routes is Allegiant Air.  After a brief operational period and then a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2000, the airline has now concentrated on providing infrequent flights from secondary markets to major leisure destinations such as Las Vegas (its headquarters) and Orlando.

It flies to secondary markets and uses secondary airports, and flies sometimes only one or two flights a week, giving it a very leisure-focused type of service offering that the major airlines have little interest in matching.  As a result, according to this interesting article, in October 2009, the airline competes on only five of its 136 routes (connecting 69 cities back then, and now - March 2010, 71 cities) and the bottom line is that it has enjoyed 27th profitable quarters in a row.

The airline says there are potentially another 300 routes it can grow to serve in the future, and feels positive about its business model and future.

It is great to see a successful airline of any description, but it is important to see the success of Allegiant Air in perspective.  Allegiant is not proof that a new airline can successfully establish itself; rather it may imply that, if an airline is to succeed in the US, it can only do so if it avoids competing with the major airlines on the routes the major airlines fly.

There's no doubt that the approximately 5 million passengers Allegiant has each year have benefitted from the airline's presence.  But Allegiant is not a competitor against other airlines - its business plan revolves around avoiding competition - it specifically has no desire to enter into competition against the major airlines, so its success and business plan point as much to the difficulty of succeeding as they do the the easy of a new airline succeeding.

And in terms of size, Allegiant is small.  It is about the 20th largest carrier as measured by RPMs, with about 0.5% of the total US market.  Delta is more than 40 times larger.

Withstanding Major Airline Competition

This is the Achilles Heel of any new airline startup.  How can they survive if one (or more than one) of the major airlines decides to engage in a straight up and down competitive fight?

The math behind a competitive fight is inescapable, and the outcome of an uncontrolled competitive battle to the death is preordained.  Small airlines can not withstand a full on assault by larger airlines.

A larger airline can afford to lose money on every seat it sells competitively against the smaller airline, because it still has revenue and earnings from the rest of its route system.  But a small airline that suddenly finds itself having to match below-cost fares on its entire network has nowhere else to balance the losses it is making.  In addition, it probably does not have a great deal of free capital, and has slightly nervous investors who understand the inevitable outcome of a 'fight to the finish'.






Let's look first at the arguments in favor of big airlines.


Same schedules

Extra flights to bleed away potential business

Lower fares

Noncash benefits the small guy can't match
- free stopover or free extra flight
- mileage bonuses
- upgrades if the other carrier has fewer classes of service







There's really no secret to what happens when a small airline tries to compete with a big airline, whether it be domestically within the US or internationally.  There can't be a secret, because those of us who choose not to look away see exactly what the airlines predictably do every time they choose to squash a competitor.  The only secret is how the big airlines continue to get away with their actions, which prima facie appear to be uncompetitive and unfair.

Let's look at the various classic responses major established airlines typically offer to new upstart competitors, in a theoretical scenario where Big Airline AB already operates some flights between city AAA and city BBB - let's say it has 50% of the total market for flights between those two cities, and 75% of the market for nonstop flights between those two cities.

For the example, we'll consider airline AB to be similar to one of the large US airlines, with an extensive route network of flights within the US and internationally, a broad based frequent flier program, and operating two class flights between AAA and BBB.




Big Airlines Will Attack Small Airlines Even if Not Directly Competing

Maybe it is possible to understand how a big airline feels protective and possessive of a route it is currently serving, and doesn't want to allow new competitors to enter that route and make life difficult (ie competitive).

But they'll also attack when smaller airlines establish parallel routes to/from secondary but nearby airports.  For example, a major airline might fly from New York/JFK to Los Angeles/LAX.  A competitor might choose to sneak in under the radar, offering service from Newark to Long Beach.

Invariably, a new airline will pre-announce their new flights, because they want to start selling the flights in advance of the first day they start operating.  And of course, they have to arrange for gates at the airports, services to be provided to planes, possibly regulatory or other permissions, and in general, there are a lot of signs to the watchful wary dinosaurs that a new competitor may be about to spring into existence.

And so it often happens that within a day or two of a new airline announcing a new route, an existing airline will suddenly, as if by astonishing coincidence, and with absolutely no reference to the new airline, announce that it too is starting service on the route.

The more cynical among us might wonder how it is that an airline for decades has never chosen to fly a route, and then suddenly, by coincidence, it announces new service on the route, closely timed to match a new competitor.

But even the least cynical of us must surely wonder how it is that, after having started this new service and enthusiastically operated it, probably at amazing low fares, when the new competitor has finally been killed off and discontinues service, the existing airline - instead of increasing its service to reflect the loss of additional capacity - will then immediately discontinue its own flights too.

Fair competition?

The Amazing Changes in Air Fares

Here's another amazing phenomenon that we're assured is not anti-competitive or unfair.  When a major airline tries to kill off a new competitor operating a similar but not identical route, and when it adds its own flights to the similar route, it is normal to see that the flights on its established (and noncompetitive) route stay the same price, while the flights on the new route might be less than half.  For example, when AA started responding to new airline competitors that were offering all business class service from New York to London's Stansted Airport, AA added flights to Stansted as well, charging $2730 to Stansted while leaving its $10,000 and up fares to Heathrow unchanged.

Oh, and when the competitors unsurprisingly went out of business, AA immediately discontinued its flights to Stansted too.

Fair competition?





lower fares to competing city



with the





The New Reality - The Trans-Atlantic is Now Closed to Competition

So with these general comments as background, let's do a thought exercise in two parts.

The first part is to look at the hardest scenario.  Let's assume we are a new airline, wanting to offer service across the Atlantic, from somewhere in the US (maybe from multiple gateways) to somewhere in Europe (again, maybe to multiple gateways).

Where would you choose to fly?  Basically you have two strategies - either to join a very large existing route and hope to secure a small percent of that market, enough to survive on, or alternatively, you can choose a currently unserviced city pair that doesn't presently have nonstop service and hope to be able to build a route without causing any of the majors to respond and add their own flights to directly compete against yours.

If you're going to choose a major market, then you'll probably look at New York to London, this being the largest market of all, and more than twice the size of the next largest.  DOT shows, for the year ending June 2008, that 1.62 million people flew each way between New York and London; the next biggest market being New York to Paris (639,000) then Los Angeles to London (477,000).

If you were to offer a single daily service on a plane with a target load of 180 passengers, you'd need to secure about 66,000 passengers each way a year.  This would be 4% of the NY-London market, 10% of the NY-Paris market and 14% of the LA-London market.

How easy would that be?  Difficult is the short answer.

If you're flying out of New York, you may have problems getting slots at JFK, and even Newark is no longer easy to operate from.  If you're flying in to London you either have to accept a secondary airport or else pay a huge sum (tens of millions of dollars) for a good slot pair at Heathrow.  And to consider the implication of that, say you buy a slot pair at Heathrow for $40 million (less than what Continental paid a couple of years ago), and say you are borrowing the money for this payment at 7.5%.  The interest cost on this loan translates into $91 per roundtrip ticket - right from the get-go, you are at a massive competitive disadvantage against other airlines flying to Heathrow using existing landing rights that they did not have to buy at top dollar.

If you're flying from New York to London, you have a chance of building a route for only those people wanting to fly between the two cities (just over a third of passengers on that route have additional flights), with no desire to travel further on either side of the NY-London flight, but more than half the passengers on the other two routes either start their travel somewhere prior to arriving at the gateway city and/or continue their travel on somewhere else after reaching the destination city.

Your new airline can't offer the same connection convenience that the alliance based airlines can, so instead of seeking the 4/10/14% market share initially calculated, you're actually hoping to get a market share of 6.5% (NY/London), 21.7% (NY/Paris), or 30.4% (LA/London).

Okay, so that becomes more difficult, and now let's think about some of these difficulties.

The first difficulty is that this analysis is based on you operating a single flight a day.  Your major competitors in all these markets are operating anywhere from two to ten or more flights.  If you have your flight with a morning departure, you will miss all the people wanting (or needing) an afternoon departure, and vice versa if you choose an afternoon instead of morning departure.  Perhaps this can be factored in to the market share by saying that your timetabled flight times will only appeal to half the potential passengers.  Which means you're now needing to get, for your brand new airline, a market share of 13% (NY/Lon), 43.4% (NY/Paris), or 60.8%( LA/Lon).

So we can probably now dismiss LA/London as being impossible, unless of course you doubled your flights to operate at different times of day.  But, if you doubled your flights - guess what, you need twice as many passengers, so you're back to needing to pick up 60.8% of all passengers on the Los Angles-London route.  Still impossible.

So let's think some more about the first two routes.  New York - London in particular looks possible, don't you think?

If you choose to do NY-London, let's say that you decide that there's no way you can fly to Heathrow, due to the $91 cost per roundtrip ticket of buying a Heathrow slot.  Remember also that the $91 is with no repayment - that's just paying the interest alone.  If you decided you wanted to actually pay off the slot - say over 25 years, then you'd be paying $108 per passenger.

For sure, if you do proceed to establish a new airline, you know several things, don't you.  You know you're going to have to price your service low, and you know that the big guys are going to match your pricing.  With a $100 per ticket cost penalty, and fares that may well drop to $200 per ticket, there's no way you could play that game and win.  You need to have costs no higher than the big guys and hopefully lower, so Heathrow is totally out of the question.

But if you choose another London airport, you have a problem - Heathrow is the airport passengers love to hate.  They hate the airport, but they love to fly through it (rightly or wrongly) believing it to be the 'best' way to reach London.

The DOT suggests that passengers choose Heathrow by something like a 3:1 margin.  So instead of needing a market share of 13% of all NY/Lon passengers, you need a market share of 52% of passengers willing to avoid Heathrow.  Sure, you could spend millions of dollars trying to promote the benefits of flying to an alternate airport, but your start-up airline isn't likely to have that much spare cash lying around, and even if it did, the results are uncertain.

Probably you'll decide that needing to get more than half the potential passengers onto your single flight a day airline is too ambitious a goal, which leaves now only NY-Paris, where you need 'only' a 43.4% market share - still a ridiculously high percentage needed, but let's continue the exercise and see the implications of this.

So let's think about other things that might influence your potential passengers, causing them to choose either you or an existing airline.

Let's consider both leisure and business travelers.  Leisure travelers are motivated by two things - the lowest fare and frequent flier miles.  Almost as a given, any person who flies internationally is a person who also already flies domestically, and so they will have some type of linkage to one or more frequent flier programs, and will be keen to get the 7250 miles of frequent flier credit that they'd earn from a roundtrip between New York and Paris.  It might make all the difference between going up a level of elite status for the next year.  Maybe they are already an elite member and want to fly their preferred airline in the hope of getting an upgrade.  Or maybe they're just a regular member, but they apply the rule of thumb of each mile being worth about 2c to them, meaning that there is $145 of value in the frequent flier miles associated with this flight.

So to get leisure travelers to choose your service, you're going to have to discount to compensate for the fact that you don't have any sort of realistic frequent flier program to appeal to leisure travelers, and of course you have no chance of building one in partnership with any relevant US carrier - who would you choose?  They are all tied in with an alliance and so wouldn't sensibly wish to help you compete against them.

And then, all of a sudden, you find yourself at the same cost disadvantage against the alliances, just the same as if you had to absorb $100 of Heathrow slot fees per ticket.

On the other hand, what about business travelers?  They're a much more lucrative and price-insensitive part of the market, right?  Wrong.  To start with, business travelers are even more captive to their frequent flier programs than leisure travelers, so you've got all the frequent flier issues with double relevance/strength applicable to business travelers.

And then, many time business travelers need to follow corporate travel policies.  And corporate travel departments typically do deals with airlines and their alliances for all their travel.  Airlines can track corporate ticket buying, to see if they are playing fair or not, and of course, the alliances would all require the corporate to buy their NY-Paris travel through them as part of an overall contract negotiation.

Oh - and talking about contract negotiations, the alliances will probably be extending up to 50% discounts off their published business fares, making them less lucrative in any event.

Let's say that two out of every three passengers will choose their airline based on their frequent flier affiliations.  This means that you will need your airline to get 130.2% of the remaining passengers.  And - ooops, that's impossible, isn't it.

So scratch now NY-Paris too.

Bottom line - a new airline can't make the numbers work for any of the three largest trans-Atlantic routes.

Let's look at it another way.  What size market would you need to be able to access in order to create a viable service?

We already know that you need 66,000 passengers a year, each way to reasonably fill an international daily flight.  Let's actually round that down a bit - maybe you can find a less competitive market with higher fares.  Let's be optimistic and take that down to 60,000 pax/yr.

Now let's remember that your one flight a day isn't going to appeal to every possible passenger.  But let's also allow for the fact that in this secondary market, maybe there is only one (or even no) other nonstop flights in the city-pair you've selected, so let's say that instead of having to adjust by a factor of two to compensate for timetable convenience, you only need to adjust by a factor of 1.5.  So you need a market with a pool of 90,000 potential annual passengers.

Now let's adjust for frequent flier programs, and let's just adjust that by an again optimistic factor of 2 (even though we feel a more realistic factor to be 3 or even 4 or higher).  So you need a market with a pool of 180,000 potential annual passengers.

Let's also make a small adjustment for the fact that no-one has ever heard of your new airline before, and many people are reluctant to choose a new airline they know nothing about.  Let's add a one third extra to the calculation, which means you need to find a market with a pool of 240,000 potential annual passengers - passengers who only want to fly between the two cities you are servicing, with no interest in flights before or after the trans-atlantic flights.

How many city pair markets are you aware of in the US that are that huge in size and which are not currently already competitively serviced?  None.

So what have we shown so far?  It is impossible for a new entrant to realistically start service in any of the three largest city-pair markets across the Atlantic, and it is also impossible for a new entrant to start service in a small underserved/overlooked city pair.

Let's now, in desperation, re-examine one of our assumptions.  We are limiting our planning only to city-pairs where there are no flights beyond the two cities served.  But maybe if there was a way to service additional cities before and/or after the trans-atlantic flights, then that would massively grow the appeal of the service.

For example, if you had feeder flights in to New York so as to draw passengers in from other cities, that would greatly help boost potential passengers who would then fly on from New York to London or Paris.  And if you had feeder flights at the other end as well, you'd get people from other parts of the US, flying first to New York, then over to London or Paris, then on to a final destination, right?

Well, in theory, yes, this is correct.

But, in practice, there's a problem.  Which airlines in the US or Europe would you partner with to provide this feeder service?  Let's look at the major airlines in the US and see how likely it is they'd choose to partner with you :

Top ten US airlines (by passenger numbers)





No alliance affiliation

Notoriously independent, would be very hard to create a relationship with, and Southwest's open seating single class of service doesn't fit well with international reserved seating multiple class flights



alliance member, international competitor



alliance member, international competitor



alliance member, international competitor

US Airways


alliance member, international competitor



alliance member, international competitor


No alliance affiliation

main hub in Atlanta, also in Milwaukee, Orlando and Baltimore


No alliance affiliation

Part owned by Lufthansa so unlikely to work with LH competitors

Republic/ Skywest/ Frontier

No alliance affiliation

Primarily regional carrier, has business affiliations with United, Delta and AirTran, so actual unaffiliated flights it could partner with are not very many.  Frontier's Denver hub could be interesting.


No alliance affiliation

Regional carrier with main hub in Seattle, works closely with Delta and with American, couldn't provide much feeder service to cities other than Seattle.

There are two airlines that seem to offer possible tie-in opportunities - Southwest and AirTran.  Southwest should be considered 'a tough nut to crack', AirTran might be a possible US partner, but that would then focus your US gateway cities to Atlanta, Milwaukee and Baltimore (AirTran has good service to Orlando too but the routings from further away places makes Orlando not a good choice of connecting point).  Baltimore is an interesting possibility, with local traffic in the Baltimore/DC area supplemented by feeder service in to Baltimore.  The AirTran route map can be seen here.

So, to get your new airline started, it looks like you have only one possible strategy.  You would need to partner with AirTran and base your operation in Baltimore - a decision that may or may not be viable, but the best decision open to you.

If you want to expand in the future, you could do so to Milwaukee and Atlanta.  But if you wanted to add any west coast destinations, or if you wanted to add service to New York or Chicago or Dallas or most other places, you'd be out of luck.




  The only airline I'm aware of which is





Which leaves us only one route to



We've gone from 50+ airlines flying across the Atlantic to three major alliances and several minor unaligned airlines, most notably Virgin Atlantic. DOT figures for the 12 months ended June 2009 show the following market shares :


The Magic of Heathrow

London's Heathrow airport is a curious anomaly, because it is simultaneously one of the most hated airports in the world, but also the London


(AC) a market share of 25% and revenues of $12 billion.

All these factors would have seemed to indicate an airline that was growing and thriving.

He slip 'twixt cup and lip' seemed to be the applicable adage, and the press release advising their closure referred obliquely to 'some issues arose that we could not overcome' that prevented them securing the financing that had seemed to have already been obtained.


DoT's provisional 'show cause' order




Why did Eos Fail?

So, what caused the demise of this airline and are there any lessons to be learned?  Interestingly, the airline avoided trotting out the usual scapegoa

Part of a series on airline competition - please see extra articles listed at the top in the right hand column

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 2 May 2008, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
Is Airline Competition Always Fair

Airline Competition Series.
1.  RIP, Airline Competition, 1980-2010
2. Bigger airlines are not better
3. The airlines are oligopolies
4. The demonstrated lack of growth in airlines to date
5. How airlines kill their competitors
6. The evolution of regulatory anti-trust approvals


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