Budget Air Travel Blossoms in Europe

Just about the only thing that’s cheap in London nowadays is flying out.

But no-frills jetsetting may not take off as easily in mainland Europe even when budget carriers set up base there.

Helped by geography and high British prices, airlines such as Ryanair, Easyjet and Go are cashing in by shuttling travelers from Britain and Ireland to the continent for as little as 25 pounds ($35.48) return.

With traffic expected to grow 15 percent annually over the next five years, they now want to take their business to the mainland, where duopolies on most routes mean travelers pay top dollar to fly just about anywhere.

“Continental Europe is ripe for the picking. There are still very high air fares and there are only two carriers on most routes,” says Damien Horth, airline analyst at ABN Amro.

“And while there is unlikely to be a market as big as London, you can envisage that the market from Europe to Europe is bigger than the market from the UK to Europe.”

Ryanair and Go are looking for a new base in mainland Europe and Easyjet, which already flies to France and Spain from Switzerland, plans to start services from Amsterdam in January.

Mainline operators have reason to be nervous about budget airlines landing on their patch. The bargain carriers poached so much of British Airways’ short-haul business last year that its European operations lost 439 million dollars.

And while the airlines used to focus on leisure traffic, about 30 percent of their tickets go to business travelers who have warmed to the idea of paying for their meals and scrambling for their preferred seat in return for low fares.

But experts say high-speed rail links, less-developed secondary airports and influential national carriers may make it harder for the no-frills business to soar on the continent.

“Budget airlines have been so successful in the UK and Ireland because these countries have not had direct links into the continent so they’ve had no competition,” says Keith Mason, a lecturer in air transport at Cranfield University.

“But in continental Europe, there’s a lot of competition on the surface...and you also have to question whether there is the same kind of appetite for budget travel.”

Minibar in Your Tent?

Last year, the Swiss government refused Easyjet boss Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s application to fly scheduled services from Geneva to Barcelona on the grounds that a national law guaranteed Swissair a monopoly on the route until 2008.

Only tour operators offering ground transportation and accomodation could fly the route, so — not to be outdone — the defiant Easyjet boss now offers passengers landing in the Spanish city a bus service...and a tent.

The Swiss case is an exception, as the country is not yet part of the European Union’s deregulated airline market. But budget airline executives say virtual monopolies still exist on many routes and at airports.

“The two main problems are lack of slots at major airports and ground handling, which despite liberalization still remains in the hands of mainline carriers or the airports authorities themselves,” said Easyjet spokesman Toby Nicoll.

It will also be difficult to lure passengers from trains even for journeys of more than three hours — the threshold under which people prefer to travel by rail rather than by air.

The only service linking UK travelers to the mainland is Eurostar, which runs services from London to Paris and Brussels at prices often higher than those offered by low-cost airlines.

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