The Struggle of US Budget Airlines Post-Pandemic

The anticipated Thanksgiving travel surge, with an expected 30 million passengers taking to the skies, highlights a dichotomy in the US airline industry. While this represents a significant uptick in travel, domestic low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. find little cause for celebration. These airlines expanded their seat capacity in anticipation of a post-pandemic travel boom but are now grappling with empty seats as passengers lean towards higher-priced, international-focused airlines. This shift has left domestic-focused carriers, including Frontier Group Holdings Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp., facing potential financial hardships through 2024 and possibly into 2025. These challenges are compounded by various issues, including aircraft delays, labor cost increases, fuel price volatility, and broader industry issues such as air traffic controller shortages.

The Pricing Dilemma and Capacity Expansion

Low-cost carriers in the US are facing a significant pricing dilemma. Despite the increased travel demand in 2022, budget airlines have had to further slash their already low fares to attract passengers. The average domestic airfares for the Thanksgiving season have dipped compared to both 2022 and pre-pandemic levels. This downward trend in fares is reflected in data from booking apps and travel agencies, showing a consistent decline in average round-trip fares since April. The over-expansion of capacity by these airlines exacerbates the situation. With optimistic post-lockdown expansion plans, these carriers face a widening gap between supply and demand, especially as budget travelers scale back on travel. The anticipated increase in the domestic fleet size by 2025 suggests an even greater challenge in aligning capacity with actual demand.

Cost Pressures and Competition from Premium Carriers

The financial strain on low-cost carriers is further intensified by rising costs across various sectors. From labor agreements to maintenance expenses, airlines are dealing with increasing expenditure. This is particularly challenging for low-cost carriers, which traditionally rely on high aircraft utilization and growth to offset their low fare models. In contrast, larger carriers like United Airlines Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., and American Airlines Group Inc. are bolstering profits through international routes, premium seating, and lucrative loyalty programs. These programs are generating substantial annual revenue, putting low-cost, domestic-focused airlines at a competitive disadvantage.

Measures by Low-Cost Airlines to Counter Challenges

In response to these market challenges, low-cost airlines are implementing strategic changes. Southwest Airlines, for instance, is decelerating its capacity growth in 2024, with a reduced expansion rate for the entire year. Frontier Airlines is also adjusting its capacity growth, with plans to refocus its flight scheduling strategy. Spirit Airlines, facing intense fare competition and a decline in domestic demand, is reassessing its growth trajectory and slowing down capacity additions and aircraft deliveries. JetBlue Airways is pivoting some of its operations from domestic to international routes with higher demand, indicating a shift in strategy to cope with the changing market dynamics.

Inflationary Pressures and Consumer Behavior

Inflationary pressures pose an additional challenge, potentially impacting the consumer base of low-cost carriers. Analysts suggest that the prolonged period of high inflation might be affecting not just lower-end consumers but also the mid-level market. This could alter travel patterns and consumer preferences, potentially disadvantaging budget airlines. The shift in consumer behavior towards premium travel and loyalty programs, as seen with major airlines like Delta, United, and American, raises questions about the future of low-cost carriers. There is uncertainty whether consumers will revert to budget airlines or continue to prefer the enhanced services offered by their higher-priced competitors. This situation prompts doubts about the sustainability of the low-cost business model in the current travel landscape.