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Airlines are referred to by two-digit codes. Sometimes these make sense but sometimes they don’t. For example Qantas is QF and Virgin Australia is VA, but China Southern is CZ and China Eastern is MU. Always be careful to make sure you’re using the right airline code because our readers definitely know what they are!
An “online” airline or “online carrier” has nothing to do with how it’s booked – rather, it means that the airline actually physically flies its planes (or its “metal”) to a particular destination. This is because it’s often possible to buy tickets from a particular airline to somewhere – and that airline doesn’t fly there but rather buys the tickets itself from another carrier. This is called a “codeshare” i.e. the operating airline “shares” its aircraft and allows another airline to place its “code” on the flight.
So for example Qantas is an online carrier into Australia. But Finnair is not – it doesn’t actually fly into Australia, but you can buy a Finnar (code “AY”) ticket from Sydney to Helsinki and the first part of the flight, say from Sydney to Tokyo, would be on Qantas metal.
The last 20 years or so has seen the proliferation of so-called LCCs (“low-cost carriers”) particularly in Europe and Asia. They are contrasted to traditional, legacy or “full-service” carriers. As well as price differences, low-cost carriers generally offer lower standards of service and tend to charge for extra things like baggage, blankets, food etc on board. They often don’t operate networks but rather are point-to-point meaning if you have multiple flights you have to collect and transfer your baggage yourself. Examples include Ryanair and easyJet in Europe, AirAsia in Asia, Spirit Airlines in the USA and Jetstar & Tigerair in Australia. Most LCCs are short-haul (flights less than say 5 hours) using narrow-body aircraft. More recently there has been the emergency of low-cost long-haul carriers which take people longer distances. Examples include Scoot Airlines which is an offshoot of Singapore Airlines, and Norwegian Air which operates many services between Europe and the USA (trans-atlantic flights). Often you get what you don’t pay for with LCCs particularly in the event of disruptions, where you get a refund but no accommodation, or sometimes just a credit for a future flight if your flight is cancelled.
By contrast full service carriers offer what the title implies – full service. Generally in multiple classes (economy, premium economy, business and sometimes first), with things like loyalty programs, meals included, generous baggage allowances, sometimes wi-fi, lounges. If you’re disrupted they will generally provide accommodation, and full service carriers have extensive agreements with other airlines to automatically transfer baggage between connecting flights. Examples of full service carriers would include Qantas, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, American Airlines, United Airlines, Lufthansa, Air France, Malaysian Airlines, China Southern, China Eastern and many more.
Low-cost carriers often only operate as a single class configuration, all economy seating. But some also offer a business class-type product – not as fancy as a legacy carrier but better than sitting down the back.
Full service airlines generally offer multiple classes – many economy seats, in some cases premium economy, business class and in some cases first class.
The term “class” It can get very confusing because when it comes to ticket bookings there are also things called “fare classes” or “booking classes” which are essentially sub-classes of the various pricing available. This is how airlines manage “yield” by making sure they get the maximum amount of revenue from each flight. For example on a typical aircraft there might be 100 economy class seats. However to get these sold the airline will put on a fare sale for say $100 – but only a few seats will be available at that price (in a particular “booking class”). Prices for other seats on the same plane for the same flight will be more expensive – generally meaning the earlier you book the better the price you get. There are also wholesale booking classes, enabling airlines to offer special pricing for large group bookings. Often different booking classes come with different conditions – a very cheap fare might not allow cancellations, while a more expensive (“flexible”) fare will allow changes and cancellations at no charge, or with reduced fees.