Air transport and airline models

The aeroplane, invented for wars, was repurposed for civilian travel and particularly for tourists. With the invention of jet aircraft, long distances were no longer an issue after the 1950s.

Airlines: a continuous adaptation to competition and to passenger expectations

Since the first commercial flight in 1914, the airline industry has witnessed many changes. Driven by technological innovations and changes in demand, particularly tourism demand, the industry has been structured around the creation of different types of companies. The European national airlines were born in the 1920s decade under the impetus of countries keen to have a mode of transport that can serve economic development, but also, and above all, to possess a tool that is a symbol of national power. These airlines are in fact called “flag carriers” as can be seen by their brand name and their colours. While in Europe, most of these airlines have been privatised and have merged with other operators (Air France-KLM, Lufthansa Group, IAG Group including British Airways and Iberia), they are still linked to their country through equity ownership or financial aid, as was seen during the Covid pandemic.

Europe and America were the first continents to see the air transport sector structured, but throughout the 1950s to 2000s decades, a number of countries chose to have a national airline in order to improve their accessibility without being dependent on the strategy of foreign airlines and to boost their economy mainly through tourism. Airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Air Seychelles and Air Mauritius were born from this political will, when these countries became independent. Finally, the Persian Gulf airlines, with three spearheads, namely Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, are representative of the ability of airlines to play a part in the soft power at work in this region of the world and are one of the facets of their desire for economic diversification. Along with cultural facilities or sporting events, they are also tools of international influence.

Air transport has profoundly boosted tourism development. The jet aircraft, put into service in the 1950s, overcame the limitations of long distances, with double the speed, increased capacities and reduced operating costs. This boosted the growth in passenger numbers (from 31 million in 1950, to cross the 1 billion mark in 1987, to reach 4.59 billion in 2019). More efficient than the boat, it is popular with tourists and is a tool used by a number of countries to establish themselves as an international tourist destination or to further develop the destination. Islands (in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, as well as the Indian or Pacific Ocean) have particularly benefited from the greater accessibility.

Given its high speed, its significant capacity and its long range of action, the plane is a particularly efficient mode of transport compared to other means of transport, in particular the boat, which is now used, for long crossings, only for tourist purposes. It shortens distances and offers quick access in good conditions of safety and comfort to a destination or to different legs of a tour.

However, in rare cases, the plane can also be the main object of tourism practice especially in world tours, which can now be done in six days.

The plane, an elite privilege progressively accessible to tourists and to everyone, or almost

Mass tourism brought about a transformation of supply in Western Europe and North America from the 1950s. The plane, initially the preserve of the wealthy or those travelling for business purposes, was open to leisure travel. So-called traditional airlines adapted their offer with a “tourism” class that later became “economy” class, and by marketing tourist destinations.

However, from the 1950s, airlines dedicated to tourism emerged: charters, whose French equivalent “affréter” expresses the way they operate since the reservation is made through a tourism professional, a travel agency or a tour operator, who charters part or all of a flight from a charter company. The use of an intermediary is due to the low mobility of tourists who are not accustomed to tourism practice in a foreign country and do not have the technical means to know and access the offer. Going through an intermediary therefore limits otherness and eases access to the airline offer.

Another sign of the times, these airlines mainly developed in Europe and North America, the main tourist-generating continents. The main concern of tourists being the air fare, the model is therefore designed with this objective in mind. Flights are tied with other services at the destination (accommodation, catering and visits or leisure activities) and are sold as all-inclusive packages. Ground and on-board services are reduced (only one class, limited comfort, etc.), again to optimise costs and thus reduce the selling price. The optimisation of the seat-occupancy rate also contributes to reducing the air fare. The offer of flights is relatively limited because airlines fly once a week, in accordance with the length of the stay, and offer seasonal flights during the summer to destinations associated with mass tourism, such as the Canary Islands or the Dominican Republic. When they were launched, these airlines met with resistance from the countries supporting their national airlines.

The low-cost revolution

However, in the 1990s, as practices evolved, charter airlines became less attractive and had to rethink their model by drawing inspiration from a new type of airlines, the low-cost airlines, which captured this tourist clientèle by offering services more in line with modern expectations: low prices still but more flexibility. Low-cost flights were invented in the United States before becoming a worldwide success, in sync with the international spread of tourism and more generally with mobility needs. The radical method of operation of low-cost flights has transformed the relationship with air transport and compelled other airlines to adapt to this new competition at the risk of disappearing.

Low-cost airlines have simplified the airline product (hence the name “no frills” given to these airlines) by limiting themselves to selling only a transportation service without additional services, or in any case, services not included in the air fare. This search for lower costs is systematic and concerns all components of the model (fleet, airports, distribution, personnel, marketing, etc.). Furthermore, these companies manage to optimise the overall revenue through the large volume of tickets sold and by offering paid services that generate additional revenue.

The combination of these two elements ensures the commercial success of these private and state-independent airlines while meeting passenger demand. Passengers themselves have evolved since the creation of low-cost flights. The main target customers are tourists. By offering short and medium-haul destinations at accessible fares, they adapt to the transformation of tourism practices whereby short stays are preferred. Today they also target business travellers as well as passengers travelling to visit friends or relatives. The low-cost airlines therefore also accompany the vast diaspora movements and facilitate affinity mobilities.

Thus, airlines are evolving and are adapting to societal changes by transforming their model. This mode of transport that was originally military, then elitist and dedicated to business travel opened up and has been transformed by tourism.

Véronique MONDOU


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