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Budget carrier passengers top 10 million last year

The number of Koreans using low-cost airlines surpassed 10 million for the first time last year as more people take advantage of affordable air travel at home and abroad, data showed Friday.

The figure reflects a 32.5 percent on-year surge, according to the Transport Ministry. Combined market share of the country’s five budget carriers ― Jeju Air, Air Busan, Jin Air, Eastar Jet and T’way Air ― jumped to 16.5 percent, up 3.3 percent points.

In stark contrast, the number of air travelers rose merely 4.8 percent during the period to about 49.1 million. That includes those flying with Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, the two national flag carriers.

The data underscores the fledgling companies’ growing slice of the aviation pie on the back of robust demand for easier, cheaper air travel, which was once deemed a costly luxury.

They offer one-way tickets from Seoul and Jeju for as low as 19,000 won ($16.8) during off-peak times, nearly a third of regular price tags. During the busy season, however, prices go up to around 80,000 won.

In the domestic market, the five firms together boasted a 41.4 percent share last year. They control more than 50 percent in three routes ― Gimpo-Jeju, Gimhae-Jeju and Gunsan-Jeju.

To hedge against skyrocketing fuel prices and revenue shortfall, the no-frills carriers are increasingly steering overseas now via 25 international flights. More than 1.8 million people flew abroad with them last year, doubling their collective stake on-year to 4.3 percent in that segment.

Analyst Joo Ik-chan with Eugene Investment & Securities projected the ratio will reach 15 percent in a few years.

“Major carriers may not feel a huge impact at this point as they operate far more international routes and have their own shares in some LCCs. But in the long term, budget carriers will likely take a toll on their business,” he said in a 2011 report.

Korean Air launched Jin Air in 2008 by. Asiana Airlines is the biggest stakeholder in Air Busan with 46 percent.

The ministry said the budget carriers will continue to ride a boom this year despite stiffening competition with foreign rivals and slowing demand for air travel here largely due to expanding bullet-train services.

By Shin Hyon-hee (