A weekend break in England these days doesn't have to be just a flight of fancy- even for the hard-up. With the price of scheduled plane tickets at an all-time low, this summer has been the hottest on record for travellers.
And that's mainly thanks to two new UK airlines, Debonair and easyJet. Both are revolutionising the airline industry. Extensive advertising and tempting low prices are part of their success story. There's no queuing at the travel agents for these two. Simply pick up the phone; dial a free phone number; and you're away.
On average you'll pay half the price of other regular tickets. That in itself is enough for most people.
Air Europa currently flies daily to Gatwick, a good alternative if you're west of London. There are flights daily, except Sunday. With a weekend stop-over, you can find tickets for as low as 18,900 ptas, plus tax. A good deal by anyone's standards. You also get your meals included. A weekend return costs 38,900 ptas, plus tax. Low-cost travel seems to be taking off for other European destinations, too.
Richard Branson, Britain's swash-bucking entrepreneur who rocketed to success with his Virgin record stores, has started a similar service. He snapped up a Belgium airline last summer and created Virgin Express, offering low-cost, minimum service flights from Barcelona to Brussels and Copenhagen.
Air Europa wants more of the action. It has recently announced the start up of a new Barcelona-Paris service. Debonair and easyJet both hope to rapidly expand into other routes as fully-fledged deregulation arrives next year.
The two big carriers on the Barcelona- England route, British Airways and Iberia, are maintaining a steady line through the turbulent airways of European Union deregulation, and seem reluctant to enter the cut-rate battle.
Both of them will get you to your destination on time with a safe, quality service, and even a good Rioja with your meal. But you'll pay dearly for the pleasure. Iberia flies to Heathrow three times daily, as does BA. If staying a Saturday night, you can get a return ticket for around 44,000 ptas, plus an airport tax of around 1,000 ptas. For a two-day mid-week round trip you'll need a veritable wad; around 100,000 ptas, or so. The national Spanish carrier alos offers Manchester, while BA goes direct to Birmingham.
According to one Iberia source, when you fly with the national airline, you're paying for the best slots on the landing/taking off roster at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport. You also enjoy the possibility of excellent connections for those taking other flights. And, of course, when you land you're only a tube ride away from the centre of London. The cost in time and money of getting from airport to your destination, be it London or Land's End, needs to be considered carefully. What might appear a bargain ticket can end in disappointment.
More than 665,000 people flew between Barcelona and London last year, according to Barcelona Airport statistics. And with overall passenger numbers expected to double in the next ten years, the market looks very rosy. That's why BA and Iberia can pick and chose their prices. As one BA spokesperson put it: "Our principal client is basically the weekday business traveller. We don't compete on price as much as quality."
Margins are certainly there for the taking. BA told the Metro the airline will be starting two daily flights to Gatwick next March. The idea; to cash in on business travellers going on to South America. Debonair and easyJet offer something else all together. Niche marketing is their game. Both companies are direct-sell, low-fare, ticketless airlines flying out of London's Luton Airport. By contracting out, they can lower costs and thus better prices, and with no Saturday night stop-over clause.
Both have a four-tier price structure although ticket availability in each band depends on demand. There's no hard and fast rule for the allocation of the lowest-priced one-way tickets (9,500 ptas, at Debonair, 9,000 with easyJet - add tax in both cases). Book early and you stand a good chance. Leave it till the last minute for a weekend flight and you'll probably have to pay the top fare: 14,300 ptas at Debonair, slightly more on easyJet.
EasyJet offers a daily "no-frills" service. Its chairman, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, said: "London-Barcelona has been hugely over-priced by the flag carriers. Flying is now as affordable as a pair of jeans".
Don't expect a complementary meal on this service. "There is no such thing as a free lunch", Haji-Ioannou says. But you can buy snacks from the easy Kiosk. And forget the traditional steward or stewardess. They wear jeans, trainers and company t-shirt.
The airline was the first to use a virtual ticketing service in Europe. A credit card number is all you need. You get a reservation number, confirmed in writing, but no ticket. August saw 98 percent load factors (percentage of seats sold) to Barcelona, so obviously the customers like the system.
But these two low-fare airlines are distinct; "Debonair is not a no-frills airline", says a spokesperson for the airline. "Our passengers fly in comfortable BA 146 jets with 33-inch seat pitches - wider than an average European one." On board the twice-daily flight you get complimentary muffins and biscuits, and soft beverages. Alcoholic drinks have to be paid for. Cabin crew wear stylish uniforms.
Businessmen seem to appreciate the wider choice in airlines; Debonair officials reckon that around 25 percent of passengers are on commercial trips. But it's not at all a spartan service. From November, passengers will be able to watch their favourite videos on an in-flight entertainment console or while away the time on a swipe-card gaming system. Of course, Luton isn't Heathrow but it is right on the M1, and there are plenty of trains from London's Kings Cross. A 2,000-ptas voucher includes the cost of the shuttle transfer between airport and station. The trip takes around 45 minutes, the same as the tube from Heathrow into central London. And, next year, Luton Airport will have its own train terminal. Besides, not everyone wants to go to London.
But it's in your pocket that Luton really makes a difference. It is cheaper to operate from than Heathrow, says a BA spokesperson. The new airlines based there don't have the financial constraints of BA, so they can offer cheaper flights.
Economic theory suggests that when prices come down, demand goes up. And that's good for consumers as a whole. Air travel will undoubtedly be far more popular in the next decade. Tickets for the price of jeans are already here, and here to stay. But there are jeans and jeans. Some people will still want Armani, others Levi's.