Spain, European leader in low-cost flights

Spain is the third most visited country in the world (just behind the USA and France in the global tourism ranking) and is the European country where low cost carriers (LCCs) control the largest aviation market share. There are only two countries in Europe where the market share held by LCCs is larger than legacy airlines, namely Spain (55%) and the UK (54%). Italian LCCs are trailing closely at 48%, while in countries like Poland, Germany and Ireland their market share stands between 40% and 42%.

At the other end of the spectrum, most countries with a high quota of legacy airlines traffic are located in Scandinavia, Finland being the one with the lowest LCC-penetration (13%). Sweden (21%), Switzerland (23%), Norway (24%) and Austria (25%) are part of the second group of countries with a low LCC-penetration, with market shares in the 20-25% ranges. France (with LCCs at 38%) is quite an interesting case, being Europe’s fourth largest market with a relatively low LCC-penetration under 40%.

We have analysed traffic data in 17 European markets based on their relevance in the aviation sector. On average, legacy airlines are still holding the upper hand in these 17 countries, with a 59% market share.

Number of flights by country (thousands) 

Source: Eurocontrol. International departures and domestic traffic (September 2016 to August 2017)

The European air transport scene has changed radically since the deregulation that took place between 1993 and 1997. These changes enabled the creation of “real” competitors that challenged the mostly state-owned legacy airlines of the 90s, which were thus stimulated to restructure (most of them were privatized) and face the appearance of multiple new competitors, specialised in different market segments such as air cargo, regional flying, charter and low cost.

It is evident that LCCs have been very agile and managed to gain considerable relevance while adapting to the ever-changing air transport market. In some countries their contribution has been bigger, especially in markets with a high component of leisure travel (both outgoing and incoming).

Low cost traffic and tourism

This has been particularly true for Spain in 2017, where the majority of the record-breaking numbers of incoming tourists (more than 10.5m in July, the highest number ever) are travelling by LCCs.

The main traffic flows are to/from the UK, Germany, Italy and France, the four big countries that, together with Spain, represent more than 50% of Europe’s total air traffic.


If we compare the evolution of the number of incoming tourists with the legacy and low cost air traffic, we can see how numbers have been growing relentlessly since 2010. Nevertheless, 2012-2013 represents a turning point in this evolution, as legacy airlines lost their traditional market domination after 10 years of continuous growth by LCCs, who have been able to introduce a new disruptive business model in this sector.

However, it is worth mentioning that legacy airlines have then been able to adapt and, while they haven’t been able to recover their lost market share, they are now holding their positions and growing in parallel with low cost traffic.

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