Low cost carriers shaping the future of America’s largest airports

US legacy carriers have sought to return to profitability by controlling costs while low cost carriers have used their competitive advantage to attract cost-conscious travellers and make a market share grab, according to OAG’s latest analysis which provides insights into emerging trends.

The three largest airports comparing data from October 2022 and October 2019 are Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare and Los Angeles and all three were and still are dominated by legacy carriers. At Atlanta the legacy share of capacity is 82%, at Chicago it is 91% and at Los Angeles it is 76%, while the average across the Top 25 airports is 70%.

Latest data however shows a steep decline in capacity at these airports between October 2019 and now. Other airports, such as Detroit, Minneapolis. St Paul and San Francisco, which have also seen large decreases in capacity, also operate with over 80% of capacity with legacy carriers.

“When we compare the five airports with the biggest increase in capacity with the five airports with the biggest decline in capacity it appears that in general the increases are due to additional capacity being operated by low cost airlines, while reductions are due to legacy airlines shrinking their operation,” said OAG.

Miami stands out. Overall capacity has grown by 15% but low cost capacity has grown by 425% as Spirit Airlines, Southwest and JetBlue have all moved into the market with Frontier Airlines also increasing its presence. “It’s not that the legacy airlines, especially American Airlines, have not also increased capacity but that the low cost carriers have added a considerable amount of capacity,” said OAG.

OAG added that it seems that the legacy airlines are responsible for much of the capacity reduction at airports which have seen capacity fall, at the five airports with the largest capacity decrease. So, at Detroit, for instance, while low cost airlines have reduced capacity by 11%, legacy airlines have reduced it by 28%.

There are a number of airports where legacy airline reductions have been accompanied by low cost carrier increases in capacity. At Chicago low cost carrier growth has been 22% compared with -21% for legacy carriers. At Houston, low cost carriers have added 73% more capacity while legacy airlines have reduced capacity by 12%. And at Dallas/Fort Worth low cost carriers have added 46% more seats while legacy carriers have taken 2% out.

“This sort of disruption always provides opportunities and for airports the challenge is in making sure they stay ahead of how airlines are reshaping the market.”

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