Go: an airline adventure by Barbara Cassani with Kenny Kemp

The brief, brilliant flight of an airborne pariah
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The Independent Culture

Most airlines endure brief, unhappy lives. Many never make it off the ground. Others haemorrhage cash and are closed down or swallowed up by rivals for a song. Low-cost subsidiaries of traditional airlines are particularly prone to failure, as KLM's disastrous experiment with Buzz amply demonstrated; after losing millions during three miserable years, the Dutch airline's no-frills offshoot was effectively given away to Ryanair.

A similar fate was predicted when Barbara Cassani launched British Airways' bid for a slice of the no-frills market. "Go has been given permission by BA to lose £29m," Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet, asserted. He said the new airline would "close in three years having put its rivals out of business". These quotes turn up in this account of the short but mostly brilliant career of Go, the only airline in aviation history to have been successfully set up and run by a woman.

Go's inaugural flight, Stansted to Rome, took off in May 1998. On board was easyJet's boss and some of his staff, dressed in orange boiler suits and handing out vouchers for free flights. Stelios was not aboard Go's final departure, from Nice to Stansted in March this year, and neither was Barbara Cassani. The easyJet founder had ambushed her entire airline, paying £374m for Go: a strong brand that he promptly erased.

Cassani, who now chairs London's bid for the 2012 Olympics, walked away with "a vast fortune of £10m" (and a cappuccino machine, a gift from staff). So her motivation for writing this book is not financial. She wishes to set the record straight about the airline she sketched out aboard Concorde in 1997, "sitting in a £4,000 seat plotting a business where people would fly for as little as £10".

This book charts the formidable achievements of Cassani and her team. They began in a single room in Hounslow with £25m of backing from BA, and within five years increased that 15-fold. The author is not troubled with low self-esteem: the launch was "a miracle of superb planning".

But Cassani writes candidly about Go's dreadful first summer, when planes were flying less than half-full. The restructured network that rescued the airline was partly thanks to "Kate Isaacs, who cuts my hair at Michaeljohn", and "told me we should fly to Nice".

Along with intricate descriptions of the devilishly complicated business of building an airline, the book settles a few scores. Rod Eddington, who replaced Bob Ayling at BA, regarded Go as "a pariah", says the author. He sold it off to venture capitalists 3i, who soon passed it on to easyJet at a fat profit.

The woman BA and 3i scorned has produced her compendious riposte, which will be of greatest interest to those in the airline business. But not, perhaps, to Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair. He suggests that Barbara Cassani should "Shut up, take the money, be very happy that she's one of very few people who've made a lot of money out of aviation."

Simon Calder is author of 'No Frills: the truth behind the low-cost revolution in the sky' (Virgin)