Airlines have substantial fixed and operating costs to establish and maintain air services: labor, fuel, airplanes, engines, spares and parts, IT services and networks, airport equipment, airport handling services, booking commissions, advertising, catering, training, aviation insurance and other costs. Thus all but a small percentage of the income from ticket sales is paid out to a wide variety of external providers or internal cost centers.
The earliest fixed wing airline in Europe was Aircraft Transport and Travel, formed by George Holt Thomas in 1916; via a series of takeovers and mergers, this company is an ancestor of modern-day British Airways. Using a fleet of former military Airco DH.4A biplanes that had been modified to carry two passengers in the fuselage, it operated relief flights between Folkestone and Ghent. On 15 July 1919, the company flew a proving flight across the English Channel, despite a lack of support from the British government. Flown by Lt. H Shaw in an Airco DH.9 between RAF Hendon and Paris – Le Bourget Airport, the flight took 2 hours and 30 minutes at £21 per passenger.
Growth rates are not consistent in all regions, but countries with a de-regulated airline industry have more competition and greater pricing freedom. This results in lower fares and sometimes dramatic spurts in traffic growth. The U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, Brazil, India and other markets exhibit this trend. The industry has been observed to be cyclical in its financial performance. Four or five years of poor earnings precede five or six years of improvement. But profitability even in the good years is generally low, in the range of 2–3% net profit after interest and tax. In times of profit, airlines lease new generations of airplanes and upgrade services in response to higher demand. Since 1980, the industry has not earned back the cost of capital during the best of times. Conversely, in bad times losses can be dramatically worse. Warren Buffett in 1999 said "the money that had been made since the dawn of aviation by all of this country's airline companies was zero. Absolutely zero."
Major airlines dominated their routes through aggressive pricing and additional capacity offerings, often swamping new start-ups. In the place of high barriers to entry imposed by regulation, the major airlines implemented an equally high barrier called loss leader pricing. In this strategy an already established and dominant airline stomps out its competition by lowering airfares on specific routes, below the cost of operating on it, choking out any chance a start-up airline may have. The industry side effect is an overall drop in revenue and service quality. Since deregulation in 1978 the average domestic ticket price has dropped by 40%. So has airline employee pay. By incurring massive losses, the airlines of the USA now rely upon a scourge of cyclical Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings to continue doing business. America West Airlines (which has since merged with US Airways) remained a significant survivor from this new entrant era, as dozens, even hundreds, have gone under.