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The 3 Important Types Of Airlines + How They Work

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There are many different types of airlines that are different sizes, have different cultures and have different business approaches.

If you are hoping to learn more about these different types of airlines then you have come to the right place! Here at Tourism Teacher I aim to make learning more about the travel and tourism industry SIMPLE and FUN! I do this through my range of educational articles and on my YouTube channel. And today I am going to teach you all about the three major types of airlines…

What different types of airlines are there?

Different types of airlines come in different shapes and sizes and have different business models. Some airlines are privately owned, meaning that the goal is to make a profit and a few are Government owned or subsidised, meaning that they are supported by the Government and operate as more of a service to the people as opposed to a profit-making enterprise (although they may still make a profit).

The airline industry is also made up of airlines that operate in various regions and are of various sizes.

Major airlines typically operate on a large scale internationally. They usually make the biggest profit and hire the most employees. Examples include Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Qantas to name but a few.

National airlines are airlines that represent the nation. These may also be major airlines. Examples include Air China, British Airways and TAP.

Regional airlines operate only in a particular region, this could be a continent, a part of the world or perhaps just across a select few countries. Examples of regional airlines include Flybe and Air Asia.

Types of airlines

The 3 different types of airlines

Did you know that there are different types of airlines? You can choose to fly with a charter airline, a scheduled airline or a low-cost airline (also commonly referred to as a budget airline or no-frills airline). But what’s the difference?

Within the travel and tourism sector of the economy, there are many different levels and types of transportation. From planes to trains and cars, the industry has grown exponentially over the last few decades.

This is especially true for the aviation industry! As shown below in the chart by ICAO, the industry has experienced HUGE growth over the past few decades and this growth is set to continue.

Image source

Many people will simply book their flights and be done with it, without really understanding what they should expect from said flight. Will I get food included? Will the flight time be likely to change? What happens if the airline goes bust- am I protected?

In order to get a good idea of what to expect, you need to understand the different types of airline.

There are 3 types of airlines that we typically encounter in the commercial aviation industry. Whilst each airline is slightly different, airlines will typically fit into one of the following categories:

  • Scheduled airline
  • Charter airline
  • Budget airline

Below, I have summarised each of these types of airlines and what makes them unique. I have also explained this in a fun and simple way in the video below!

What is a scheduled airline?

Types of airlines

The first category is the scheduled airline. A scheduled airline is an airline that works to a specific schedule. Just like a bus, a scheduled airline will work to a timetable. Seats will be sold to passengers and the flight should operate as planned regardless of how many seats are sold.

Of course, there are always circumstances when a flight may be cancelled or when schedules may be changed, but as a general rule, this type of airline will operate as planned.

Many scheduled airlines are national carriers that represent a particular country. They may be private organisations or they may be owned by the Government.

Scheduled airlines traditionally provide an inclusive package that includes a seat, baggage and meals, although in recent years many airlines have been unbundling their products and selling each of these elements separately. 

Scheduled airlines may also be referred to as full service carriers.

Examples of scheduled airlines

Examples of scheduled airlines include British Airways, Air India, Virgin Atlantic and United Airlines.

What is a charter airline?

If you look up the term ‘charter’ in the dictionary, you will find that it basically means to rent or to lease. So in essence, a charter airline is one that operates on the basis of ‘rented’ or ‘leased’ flights.

These tend to me associated with package holidays. The holiday company effectively ‘leases’ the flight and combines it with the package holiday elements of a hotel and transfer.

Ever been on a Thomas Cook or TUI holiday? Whilst many people are swapping these traditional package holidays nowadays for dynamic packaging (for more see- Are airlines the new tour operator? Dynamic packaging in aviation), you are likely to have gone on a package holiday when you were younger and these were all the rage.

Alongside the tour operator use of charter airlines, aircraft can be leased or chartered from airlines for use for particular events or occasions. The FA, for example, might lease an aircraft to fly all of their football players out for a game or the Government might lease a flight for a large event or summit.

What elements are included in a charter flight?

A charter airline will tend to follow the set structure that traditional charter flights have offered throughout the years.

Typically, you will be offered an in-flight meal. You will usually be asked if you will require a meal in advance and required to pay a fee for this. The Cabin Crew will then hand out meals to the relevant passengers. Sometimes the meal might be automatically included and you will be charged for this. Special meals are usually available upon request.

Charter airlines will usually have baggage included in the price of your ticket. I recommend that you check the weight of your luggage before you depart for the airport as they can have pretty hefty fees if it is overweight!

One of the best things about travelling with charter airline is that you have additional financial security if the flight is booked as part of a package holiday. Package holidays are covered by ABTA and ATOL regulations. Whilst these cover many things, one of the most noteworthy aspects to travellers is that they will cover the costs if your holiday company or airline goes bust or if there is some type of disaster, terrorist incident etc.

What are the benefits of using a charter airline?

There are a few benefits of using a charter airline.

One of the pros of this type of flight is that the prices are generally cheaper. Of course, it is important to compare prices but more times than none, you will find a cheaper charter flight. I recommend Skyscanner to find the best bargains!  

Charter flights are also usually direct and are nonstop. It is always nice to go straight to your destination!

Lastly, if you book as part of a package holiday, you will have the added security of ABTA and ATOL protection.  

What are the cons of a charter airline?

Flying with a charter airline has has its drawbacks. In fact, so much so that many people have claimed that the charter airline is dying a death! With many people opting to organise their holidays independently or using a dynamic package model, the need for charter airlines is becoming less and less, I personally think they will cease to exist in the next twenty years or so!

One of the cons of a charter airline is the amount of cancellations that can happen with these types of flights. Since the flights are operated on an ad-hoc basis (i.e. when they are required), it is common for your flight time to change or to be cancelled entirely. This can be a pain for travellers!

Another negative of a charter airline is that they often so not offer the luxuries that you might get with a scheduled airline. The often fly from tertiary airports, which can be less convenient to reach and the rarely offer business or first class facilities.

Examples of charter airlines include TUI and Jet2.

What is a budget airline?

ow-cost air travel has exploded in recent years across the globe. Whether you refer to it as a low-cost airline, a low-cost carrier, a no-frills airline or a budget airline, nowadays we are all familiar with the concept: Low cost air travel, with all of the frills removed.

As demonstrated below, the low-cost airline industry has grown considerably in recent years, and the trend is set to continue.

Image source

Low-cost airline travel typically involves short haul travel (less than 4 hours), although some carriers have recently explored the concept of low-cost long-haul. Whilst this does appear to be working in some contexts (Air Asia, Norwegian), most airlines have struggled to get such operations off the ground. Perhaps we are not willing to sacrifice our leg room and complimentary drinks for 12 hour flights?

The philosophy of a low-cost airline

A low cost carrier is basically exactly as it sounds. These flights operate without the frills and extras that are on many commercial flights.

Low-cost carriers have been most successful in Europe, where the sector grew from 8 million passengers in 1998 to more than 100 million in 2007. Many regions welcome LCCs with open arms. According to the Airports Council International, every one million passengers that travel through a new European destination result in 1,000 jobs at the airport and another 2,700 in the local and regional area. 

Such towns, however, are often at the mercy of the airlines, which tend to have the upper hand in negotiations and can often dictate conditions. When low-cost airlines withdraw their business from a specific airport due to lack of business or profit, this is known to have detrimental effects on the host community and its economy.

How can a low-cost airline be so cheap?

Low-cost airlines operate on the basis of efficiency. There are a number of ways that they are able to reduce costs and then pass tis saving on to the passenger.

To begin, they will often operate out of secondary or tertiary airports. These are airports tend to be located outside of city centres and are cheaper to operate out of. This means that landing fees and taxes tend to be less. They can, however, be quite inconvenient for passengers, who may have to travel some distance to reach them!

Another cost-saving measure in in weight. Low-cost airlines will often design their cabin interiors according to weight, removing unnecessary items such as additional toilets or galley features. Less weight means less fuel is used, which saves the airline money.

Turn-Around time is the time that it takes for the aircraft to land, disembark passengers, clean and re-stock, board passengers and depart again. Low-cost carriers frequently have a much shorter turn around time than scheduled airline, often undertaking all of the above in only 20-30 minutes. They do this by asking Cabin Crew to clean rather than having cleaners and by having strict targets for airline staff.

Low-cost flights will, of course, stick to all of the legal requirements regarding health and safety etc and these aspects will never be compromised. Instead, they tend to limit aspects that help to make your time in the air more comfortable.

Low cost carriers generally have the basics on the flights and if there are any extras, typically you are responsible for paying for them. These are known as ancillary products. Some examples of ancillary products include-

-food and drink

-duty-free items

-car hire

-hotel bookings

-in-flight entertainment

-lottery tickets

Examples of low-cost airlines

There are many low-cost airlines operating in Europe and the rest of the world. Here are some examples-

-Air Asia





-Jet Blue

-Jet Star Airways

-Azul Brazilian Airlines

-South West Airlines


Changes in the different types of airlines

Now that you understand the difference between the different types of airlines, I would like to complicate things a little bit- sorry!

In recent years many airlines have adapted their business operations in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. This has meant that not all airlines will easily fit into one of the three types of airlines that I outlined above and it is not always easy to categorise airlines in the same way that it used to be.

For example, scheduled airlines may use ancillary services just as much as a budget airline and budget airlines may offer premium services that are not traditionally associated with no-frills carriers.

Whilst scheduled, charter and low cost airlines do continue to be the three main types of airlines, differentiating between the types of airlines isn’t always an easy task these days…

To conclude: Types of airlines

I hope that you are not confident to describe the three different types of airlines found in commercial aviation. If you found this article about the different types of airlines helpful, here are some more that I think you might like-

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