They may be cheap. But don't expect them to be cheerful. The new era of inexpensive transatlantic flights may prove to be an endurance test for the passengers who will flock to them. Out-of-the way airports, endless transit bus journeys; all the irritations that come with bargain basement European air travel will be replicated in spades in the US. But that is unlikely to stop anyone.
This morning tickets go on sale for a service that seeks to emulate the Skytrain creation of the late Sir Freddie Laker. Thirty years ago, his airline's service between Gatwick and New York JFK transformed long-haul air travel, by offering fares way below prevailing levels. Yesterday Canadian Zoom Airlines promised "a revolution in low-cost transatlantic air travel". From 21 June it will fly daily on the same route, with fares starting at £229 return.
John Boyle, the co-owner of Zoom, said the service was aimed at passengers who "have been forced to pay outrageously high fares". Yet even with the restrictions of the Bermuda II agreement which constrains UK/US flights, especially from Heathrow cheap tickets are widely available. The 2007 transatlantic air market is very different from 1977.
London-New York has become the busiest intercontinental air route in the world, with more than 30 flights each way, every day. Most airlines focus on business passengers, who typically pay 10 times the cheapest economy fare. Off-peak, return tickets are available for around £250 in line with Zoom's opening price, once the passenger has paid £10 each way for a drink and meal.
The big difference of the new flight will be felt at peak times. During last summer's school holidays London to New York flights were selling for up to £700 return; some Manchester-Orlando services commanded fares of £1,000 return in economy class. Zoom has pledged that its lowest fare will apply to some seats on all flights.
The Scottish airline Flyglobespan is already selling seats on a new link between Liverpool John Lennon airport and New York JFK. A test booking yesterday for peak summer dates gave a return fare of £476, compared with £646 on the same days with British Airways' Manchester-JFK service. Passengers on the Liverpool flightwill find the journey extended on some days with a stop at Knock in Ireland to pick up more passengers.
By next spring, the "open skies" agreement will allow all EU or American carriers to fly from anywhere in Europe to the US. A decade ago, the skies of Europe were similarly liberalised and fares plunged while Ryanair and easyJet prospered.
"Ryanair's £7 flights to US Dramatic new pledge from budget airline" was the headline in a London evening newspaper yesterday, claiming that the Irish airline would offer the fare from Stansted to Long Island Islip Macarthur airport. Travellers hoping to snap up seats at this price will be disappointed. Once the usual concoction of "taxes, fees and charges" is added to the proposed ¤10 one-way fare, the cheapest return tickets from the UK will cost around £175.
The prospect of many more transatlantic flights has appalled environmental groups. Friends of the Earth's aviation campaigner, Richard Dyer, said: "Aviation is the fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, and artificially cheap long-haul flights are certain to accelerate this growth."
The use of "secondary" airports is growing. Sanford, north of Orlando, is the low-cost gateway to Florida's theme-park capital, while Flyglobespan passengers aiming for Canada's largest city this summer will touch down at John C Munro airport in Hamilton, Ontario 50 miles from Toronto. All the players so far are basing their plans on using long-haul jets. But this week, Air Canada opened a new link from Heathrow to St John's in Newfoundland using a Airbus A319, the same type used by easyJet. If passengers seem happy with a small aircraft across the Atlantic, others will soon follow.
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