Business Travel: Business benefits of bargain flights

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The Independent Online
THREE YEARS is an age in aviation. It was only in November 1995 that a new airline brought no-frills, low-fare flying to Britain with a single route between Luton and Glasgow. Planes and crews were hired in from a British Airways affiliate, GB Airways. The lead-in fare was repeated in triplicate in the phone number: 0990 292929.

Twenty-nine pounds was a level not seen on Anglo-Scottish routes since the days of standby flying. Frequencies and destinations increased rapidly, and soon easyJet parted ways with GB Airways. It now has a growing fleet of Boeing 737s, with a couple of dozen more on order.

easyJet has now expanded to the point that the airline's chairman, ebullient Greek entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Iaonnou, has now launched flights from Liverpool to four European destinations.

To those set in the ways of scheduled airlines, the new routes from the Merseyside airport to Geneva or Barcelona starting in January must look as implausible as, say, Stansted to Carcassonne, Luton to Moenchengladbach, or British Airways setting up its own cut-price operation.

Yet each of these has happened in the past three years, extending choice for the business traveller and offering the chance to cut costs.

The trick of easyJet was successfully to transplant the business model of the US carrier Southwest, one of the safest and most profitable airlines in the world, to Britain.

Concepts that travellers had taken for granted, from paper tickets to inflight meals, were jettisoned as part of the crusade to cut costs to a level where a whole new market of travellers could be attracted.

Business travellers were always part of the plan. The routes which have proved most successful are those with a mix of business and leisure travel, such as Edinburgh, Athens and Amsterdam.

Business travellers should be delighted by the scale of the response from other airlines. The growth of easyJet spurred British Airways to create Go, which began modestly earlier this year with routes to Copenhagen, Milan and Rome and is also expanding aggressively.

Go is now competing for slots at its home base of Stansted with Ryanair, which in the Nineties has moved from being an unimpressive performance as Ireland's second airline to centre stage in low-cost flying.

The airline makes impressive profits by flying people from Britain to Dublin, and from Stansted to a range of hitherto-unfamiliar continental airports: Skavsta and Torp, vaguely near Stockholm and Oslo respectively, Treviso as an approximation to Venice, plus Carcassonne and St Etienne in France. On Thursday, Ryanair will begin flights from Prestwick, near Glasgow, to Beauvais, 50 miles north of Paris.

The latest airline to discover a "new" airport is Debonair, which yesterday began flights from its Luton base to Cergy-Pontoise, north west of Paris. This airline is a different proposition from the others; not only does it use British Aerospace 146s rather than the no-frills industry standard Boeing 737, it offers a business-class product.

To help expand its network, Debonair has established an alliance with another start-up airline, Gatwick-based AB Airlines, on routes to Barcelona, Berlin and Shannon.

Inevitably, Richard Branson is lined up on the apron too. His Virgin Express is a very different proposition to the "high-frills" Virgin Atlantic product. With a hub at Brussels, the airline aims to offer a high-frequency, low-fare service.

Next month, a Stansted-Shannon service starts up, which will make the Essex airport even more crowded.

The ripples from this expansion are producing benefits for more than just those business travellers who use the new flights.

Established airlines have to offer more innovative fares, as do organisations such as Great North Eastern Railway which is suddenly facing intense competition on its key route between London and Edinburgh.

There are signs, though, that no-frills aviation could become a victim of its own success. Luton and Stansted are becoming more congested (albeit with some way to go before they reach the state of Gatwick and Heathrow), raising concerns about timekeeping.

On Debonair's own figures, the average delay on its flights on the Luton- Madrid sector is around half an hour.

And the business traveller who is accustomed to making fast connections could be frustrated on Ryanair: while the standard transfer time at airports such as Dublin and Stansted is 45 minutes, Ryanair insists on a minimum of two hours for connections.

For the business traveller under pressure to keep costs in check, the past three years have brought considerable benefits; the next three could be even more exciting.

Top sites

AB Airlines

Tel: 0800 45 88 111

Website: www.abairlines.com

Hub: Gatwick

Key routes: Berlin, Shannon

Debonair

Tel: 0541 500 300

Website: www.debonair.co.uk

Hub: Luton

Key routes: Barcelona, Madrid, Munich, Paris, Rome

easyJet

Tel: 0870 600 0000

Hub: Luton

Key routes: Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Scotland, Nice.

Go

Tel: 0845 605 4321

Website: www.gofly.com

Hub: Stansted

Key routes: Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Milan, Rome

Ryanair

Tel: 0541-569 569

Hub: Dublin and Stansted

Key routes: Numerous European destinations

Virgin Express

Tel: 0171-744 0004

Website: www.virgin-express.com

Hub: Brussels

Key routes: London and eight other cities

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