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Flight Disruptions and Low Cost Airlines

Do Flight Disruptions Happen More Often with Low Cost Airlines

Joanna Teljeur
Written By Joanna Teljeur
7 minutes read
Last Updated: June 14, 2024

According to Eurocontrol, low cost airlines have seen incredible growth over the last decade. In fact, Southwest Airlines in the US, has become one of the biggest airlines based on its number of passengers. Meanwhile, European low cost airlines, including EasyJet and Ryanair, made up over 40% of commercial flight traffic in 2022. With more and more people travelling, this number is getting bigger all the time.

Low fares entice plenty of travellers, but they might leave some people wondering if they’ll be getting low on-time performance as well. We’re going to take a closer look to see if low and ultra low cost airlines have the same amount of flight disruptions as legacy carriers to help you decide if you want to book your next flight with one.

How Low Cost Airlines Can Offer Low Fares

In order to understand the on-time performance of low cost airlines, we first have to look at what allows them to offer low fares in the first place. To start, low cost carriers are divided into two groups: Low Cost Carriers (LCC) and Ultra Low Cost Carriers (ULCC). 

Low Cost Carriers

Ultra Low Cost Carriers

Both offer lower pricing, but as the name implies, ULCCs offer rock bottom prices and bare bones amenities, so that the only thing you get with the base price is your seat. Another similarity is that both types of carriers focus on efficiency and cost reduction in their business model and use the same strategies to achieve this as seen in the table below.

But to understand the on-time performance of these airlines, the most important factors to focus on are the:

  • Tight turnaround times
  • Aircraft utilisation, and 
  • Use of secondary airports.  

Low Cost Carrier (LCC)

Ultra Low Cost Carrier (ULCC)

Basic Business Model

  • Focus on reducing operating costs
  • Medium Ancillary Fees
  • Focus on short-haul routes
  • Even greater focus on cost cutting on a broader scale
  • Very high ancillary fees
  • Passengers only pay for what they choose after base fare

Pricing Structure

  • Somewhat lower fares than legacy airlines
  • Add-on fees are lower than those charged by ULCC
  • Extremely low base fare
  • Numerous fees, even for basics 

Routes & Fleet

  • Use of a single model to minimise costs for training, servicing
  • Use of secondary airports
  • Mostly domestic markets
  • Point-to-point routes
  • Tight turnaround times
  • High aircraft utilisation
  • Use of a single model to minimise costs for training, servicing
  • Use of secondary airports
  • Mostly domestic markets
  • Point-to-point routes
  • Tight turnaround times
  • High aircraft utilisation

Service (Passenger Experience)

  • Somewhat basic with some in-flight amenities for purchase
  • Some flexibility in ticket options
  • Very basic, almost no complimentary amenities
  • Travellers have to pay for each service/amenities 
  • Rigid baggage, check-in, reservation policies

What Contributes to Flight Disruptions

We all know that severe weather, mechanical issues, and staffing shortages are just a few of the many problems that can lead to flight delays and cancellations. But how do full priced airlines handle these unexpected events differently from low and ultra low cost airlines?

Low and ultra low cost airlines do everything possible to maximise efficiency, and this means they try to get flights landed and prepped for the next flight as quickly as possible. They also streamline their processes by only using one kind of aircraft to reduce the training time for maintenance staff as well as the maintenance work itself. While this strategy can cut costs and allow for cheaper ticket prices, it doesn’t leave any margin for sudden changes that can occur like sudden storms or mechanical issues. Legacy airlines have more time between flights to sort out smaller technical problems or to let a storm pass, but LCC don’t have this luxury.

Next, they have high utilisation rates for their planes, meaning they use each aircraft more often than legacy carriers. So, if a larger mechanical problem arises, they can’t quickly or easily swap for another aircraft the way a legacy carrier can.

Lastly, LCC and ULCC both use smaller, secondary airports to avoid higher airport fees. Again, this is great for cutting costs, but smaller airports don’t have as many resources to resolve problems. So, when there’s an issue like ice, for example, these smaller airports may not have as much deicing equipment as bigger airports, so LCCs might have to wait longer to have ice removed and delay or cancel flights as a result. 

Even though these kinds of mishaps might occasionally cause delays and cancellations, you might be wondering if LCCs actually have more flight disruptions than their full-priced counterparts. Let’s take a look.

Low Cost Airlines Flight Delay

What the Statistics Say

United States

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report, we can see the on-time performance for different airlines. The 2023 report revealed that 79% of the time, U.S. airlines arrived on time. When you look at the breakdown of full-service, LCC, and ULCC, you can see some real differences.

According to the report, full-cost airlines including American Airlines, United, and Delta had an average on time arrival performance of 81.2%. The LCC’s reported average on-time arrival was 77.%, and ULLCs showed an average on-time arrival rate of 74.8%.

Academic Studies

A Florida Tech study, Analyzing Flight Delays: Legacy and Low-Cost Carriers in the U.S. found that from 2013 and 2022, legacy airlines operated 21,370,729 flights, while LCCs had 15,897,076 flights over the same time period. Based on this, the data show that legacy airlines had 3,507,096 delayed flights, and LCC had 3,582,256 delayed flights. 

A 2015 study from the University of Virginia Department of Economics compared the on-time performance of LCC, ULCC, and legacy airlines. They found that LCC had slightly more delays than legacy carriers, but ULCC had far more delays than LCC or legacy airlines. 

European Union

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) does a yearly airline performance review similar to what the DOT reports. For 2023, EASA showed that overall, the punctual arrival score for carriers in Europe was 82.5%. By airline type, full service carriers had an 84% on-time arrival rate, LCCs were punctual 80.2% of the time, and ULLCs were on-time 78.5% of the time.

Comparing Ryanair and EasyJet

Looking at this a little more closely, we can review some statistics from two of the most well-known LCCs in Europe, Ryanair and EasyJet.

In 2023, EasyJet had an average punctuality performance score of 75%. They had invested quite a bit of money into boosting their efficiency in operations by using more cutting edge scheduling technology and hiring more staff. Still, the airline struggled with flight disruptions, especially during high demand periods.

Ryanair, the biggest airline in Europe based on passenger numbers, had similar troubles. Their 2023 annual company report stated that their on-time arrival performance was 87%, which isn’t bad but they were heavily criticised because of the number of flights that were cancelled or delayed. To be fair, many of their flight disruptions were caused by extraordinary circumstances like dangerous weather and air traffic control issues.

How Flight Disruptions on LCC Impact Passengers

Most travellers know that they’ll have a delay or cancellation at some point, and they take this in stride by assuming they’ll easily find another flight to their final destination. But passengers on LCCs may find that a delay or cancellation affects them more than if they’d had a delay with a legacy airline, and here’s why.

Because LCC and ULCC don’t usually offer flights with connections, you have to book a ticket for each part of your trip. This means that if you end up having a delay or cancellation, you might have to spend more money on rebooking a new flight to your final destination. Speaking of additional expenses, you might have to spend on meals and accommodation if you have a flight disruption. Full-cost airlines are more willing to provide these things in the US, and if you’re travelling in the EU, UK, or Canada, your air passenger rights will guarantee care and assistance  


So, yes. Low Cost Carriers do have more delays than legacy airlines, but this leads to another question: Is it worth it? Passengers might save a bundle by choosing to fly with LCCs but they may end up paying for the cost savings with more headaches and grief. If your travel is flexible, the low cost option may be a good choice simply because you have more time to deal with changes in your itinerary. 

If you have a flight delay or cancellation in the EU or UK, be sure to check your flight details with our compensation calculator, because whether you fly with a LCC or an ULCC, you could still be eligible for cash compensation from the airline. All you have to do is enter your flight details, see if you’re eligible and let the legal team at AirAdvisor take care of your compensation claim for you! And you have nothing to lose because of our no-win, no-fee structure. Enter your flight details below to get started.

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