Legacy Airlines: What Does the Name Entail?

Airlines · 4 min read · Oct 11, 2022
legacy airlines

The word legacy by definition would naturally refer to something outstanding, superior, and elegant and one that demonstrates “inherent existence” for lack of a better phrase. In other words, the literal antonym of legacy is provisional, which in contrast, is defined as temporary, unfinished, or a stopgap.

Therefore, by association, a legacy airline or carrier fulfills the merits of market dominance not just in the region but across the world.

Let’s have a look at some of the traits of legacy airlines.

One of legacy airlines in Europe KLM aircraft taking off.

What is a legacy airline?

Legacy airlines are normally full service carriers that offer more comprehensive high-end services, which create a better passenger experience than that of low-cost carriers. For example, whereas the low-cost carriers and the ultra-low-cost airlines generally offer services to price-conscious passengers that is why most of their services are “a la carte,” legacy airlines are more focused on ultimate passenger experience and hence they are more satisfactory to quality-conscious consumers.

Ticket price range

A legacy carrier offers multiple options of air travel to passengers as cabin classes such as business, economy, and premium or first-class services. Therefore, this helps the airline tap into a broader market spectrum consisting of diverse passengers ranging from low-budget to high-budget consumers.

Legacy carrier United Airlines' aircraft being towed.

Cabin service

Further, the cabin service is undoubtedly superior to those of low-cost carriers. These include in flight entertainment, which most LCCs such as Southwest Airlines does not offer, and meal service. Unlike legacy carriers, most LCCs generally offer meal services as add-ons or separate purchase items from the air ticket, which generate an enormous amount of ancillary revenue.

On a positive note, this can help low-budget travelers to stick to their restrained budgets, particularly over short-haul flights. However, this can lead to a negative customer experience and hence a poor brand rating from the passengers who perceive these extras as hidden costs. Unfortunately, the bitter-sweet truth is that we don’t all know that you get what you pay for!

Vast networks

Legacy carriers also operate the hub and spoke network model. As such, they operate large networks both domestically and internationally, which makes them enjoy economies of scale. For instance, the market coverage is increased in the hub and spoke business models. This is because of the expanded origin-destination pair markets which when served by an airline as a consolidation of the dissimilar traffic flows meet the supply-demand requirements.

Quite often, many legacies are also part of airline alliances that allow passengers to connect their flights easily as well as sometimes even transfer their frequent flyer points from one carrier to the other.

Legacy carrier American's aircraft stationed at a jetway, ready for flight.

Extensive fleet

Another characteristic of legacy airlines is the ownership of a large and varied fleet. The large number of aircraft helps in meeting the high demand-supply requirements considering the large market service regionally and beyond. At the same time, the varied fleet helps in meeting the different mission and flight profile demands.

That is not to say that these airlines disregard the benefits of fleet commonality such as reduced crew training requirements and the extended sharing of maintenance infrastructure, but this is achieved by having considerably many aircraft of a given type for certain flight profiles, and this is extrapolated into many other mission possibilities against different aircraft types.

Legacy carrier Delta's aircraft tails.

Frequent flyer programs

Even more, these types of carriers offer established frequent flyer programs. This means that they will go an extra mile to reward their loyal passengers. Some of the best frequent flyer programs in the airline industry include:

1)      Flying Blue by Air France and KLM.

2)      Mileageplus by United Airlines.

3)      Skymiles by Delta Airlines.

4)      Executive Club by British Airways.

5)      AAdvantage by American Airlines.

In case you want to read more about these flyer programs by the world’s major legacy carriers, be sure to keep tabs on this blog because we will be soon rolling out an article on this topic.

Definitely, you have already noticed the extended range of characteristics of these airlines. However, beyond these, is the contribution of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act to this nomenclature. The Deregulation Act aimed to prohibit states from regulating the price, route, or service of airlines so that national carriers could continue to compete fairly with the other airlines. In the United States, with regards to the Act, legacy carriers are those airlines that had established interstate routes before the onset of route liberalization, which was directly affected by the Act.

Legacy airlines British Airways parked at a jetbridge.

What are the 3 legacy airlines?

Whereas the list may be long considering the great extent of mergers and acquisitions of airlines in recent years, the three popularly known legacy airlines are American, United, and Delta Airlines. Alaska Airlines and Hawaii Airlines are the other close market competitors in the United States who arguably are increasingly growing into this league of carriers.

Further, in Europe, KLM, British Airways, and Air France are the three most dominating airlines associated with the legacy badge in the market.

Taking the case of American Airlines, other than meeting all the criteria for defining a legacy airline as already discussed, it has a great history of firsts. For instance, Captain Dave Harris was the first African American commercial airline pilot in 1964.

Further, Captain Sid Clark was the first Black chief pilot at US Airways in 1994. Equally, the “Soul Patrol” was one of a kind flight crew! Therefore, in the spirit of honoring a legacy of firsts, it is a no-brainer that American Airlines is a perfect match.

Under its original name, KLM is Europe’s oldest airline in service. As such, despite its good brand positioning over the years, its public acceptance as a legacy airline is equally in cognizance of the length of service in the airline industry.

Legacy carrier Air France landing.

Closing Thoughts

The recognition of airlines as a legacy is founded beyond the quality or strengths of their company brands. Some of these extras are the lengths of service and their overall contribution to fair play in the unrelentingly-competitive aviation industry. It is for this reason that we should give credit where it is due.

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Jaap Brian profile picture
Jaap Brian
A highly passionate aviator, with a solid background in aeronautical engineering. His journey to writing about aviation topics is founded on sharing insights into aviation safety and technical aircraft performance – a journey that is 6+ years and counting.

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