Neither easyJet nor Ryanair charges for restroom admission — yet — but a new fee-centric arms race may push them into pitched battle. The UK’s easyJet for the first time earned more in ancillary revenue last year than Dublin’s Ryanair, which helped pioneer frill-less flight.

IdeaWorksCompany, in its Amadeus-sponsored airline ancillary revenue roundup for 2011, says easyJet’s fees and loyalty income grew nearly 19.4% to $1.105 billion (£890.1 million), taking the sixth spot among the top 10 airlines in total ancillary revenue among 50 carriers that revealed their numbers.

Although easyJet transported fewer passengers (55.4 million “earned seats” versus 76 million passengers on board Ryanair), it surpassed Michael O’Leary’s Ryanair, which fell to the seventh spot with $1.1 billion (£886.2 million) in fee revenue. Ryanair was only behind easyJet by about $5 million, but lost its higher spot in the top 10.

Management buys in

EasyJet itself, and Jay Sorensen of IdeaWorks, both attribute the airline’s strides to management focus.

In its 2011 annual report, easyJet ascribed a 12.9% increase in its ancillary revenue per seat to “decisive management action in the second quarter.”

EasyJet had brought in a new CEO, Carolyn McCall, and CFO, Chris Kennedy, in July 2010.

The “surprising” changing of the guard as easyJet supplanted Ryanair in ancillary fees is “very likely because of the new CEO at easyJet and an increased emphasis on driving ancillary revenue,” Sorensen says.

“The airline has always used a kinder approach with consumers, whereas Ryanair is anything but kind,” Sorenson says. “Perhaps the carrot is better than the stick.”

Elaborating on its performance in 2012, which wasn’t covered in the IdeaWorks study, easyJet’s report for the quarter ended June 30 states that the airline notched “strong performance from fees and charges, and first bag revenues increasing by £1.20 to £11.81 per seat following the changes implemented in May 2011 and January 2012 …”

 Full service versus fee service

Global airlines are anything but monolithic. And, the ancillary revenue gains that easyJet (Speedy Boarding, administrative fees, reserved seats, cancel, and change fees) and Ryanair (bag fees, change fees, airport booking fees etc.) made are being carefully monitored by that nowadays rare breed of airline — full-service carriers such as Air France and Lufthansa.

Sorensen doesn’t think Air France and Lufthansa will be able to stem the tide because he argues that the low-cost model is so irresistible for travelers lured by base prices that seem too low to pass up.

“I don’t think it’s going to work [for the full-service carriers],” Sorensen says.