Flying on the Cheap
Southwest Airlines has spent years highlighting its low prices with the slogan, "You are now free to move about the country." But across the pond, European airlines have taken Southwest's business model to extremes. Sometimes their fares are-they claim-free.
The most successful of Europe's discount airlines is Dublin-based Ryanair, which is so fanatic about cutting costs that employees were once reportedly told not to charge their cellphones at work. The airline cuts prices by flying to secondary airports-Gatwick instead of Heathrow-using unassigned seating to speed boarding, and selling ad space on its planes. Once aboard, passengers are charged for nearly everything, including checked luggage. "We don't pretend to give you a free meal that will cost about 180 pounds and tastes like rubbish," says spokesman Peter Sherrard. One passenger successfully sued after being charged for the use of a wheelchair.
Add-ons. By gutting administrative costs and passenger perks, Ryanair can offer about a quarter of its seats free, though that doesn't include taxes and other charges. Still, Ryanair flights cost an average of about $54, compared with nearly $105 for Southwest. And it has inspired a slew of competitors, from Polish Centralwings to Hungarian Wizz Air.
No American airline has fully embraced a bargain-basement image. Southwest still promotes its leather seats, while JetBlue boasts of its satellite television. Both still offer free snacks and drinks. "We don't like to nickel and dime our customers," says Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Southwest.
The small change adds up, though, and American entrepreneurs are starting to take notice. Orlando-based AirTran has sent employees to Europe to study Ryanair. In May, pending certification, the new Skybus Airlines plans discount flights out of its Columbus, Ohio, hub using, in part, the Ryanair model. If it works, Americans could join Europeans in looking to their piggy banks, not their bank accounts, when they want to take to the skies.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.