Air Lib to pilot cheap fares slots

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The French airline Air Lib is planning to launch France's first low-cost internal flights by the end of this month.

Its success or failure will be the subject of intense interest abroad as British and Irish low-cost airlines are ready to seize on any stumble by Air Lib to expand their cut-price flights to Paris and through Paris to other European cities.

Air Lib is planning flights from Paris to Nice, Toulouse, Toulon, Perpignan and Lourdes, adding Marseilles, Nîmes, Bordeaux and Montpellier later. Prices would start at €29 (£20) one way.

The Air Lib chief executive, Jean-Charles Corbet, said his company's attempt to compete with Air France on a head-to-head basis had been un erreur. The move towards the low-cost model of successful British and Irish companies is his brainchild, following his company's dire financial trouble last year when it went into bankruptcy protection status in July.

Air Lib's new package will be watched closely by well-known, low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, GO and Virgin Express, who have all expressed an interest in expanding their development in France, especially Paris.

Only Buzz flies at low price from anywhere in Britain to Paris, with Ryanair using Beauvais airport north-west of Paris for flights from Dublin.

But easyJet has the biggest stake in the fate of Air Lib. EasyJet has been working on bringing its brand of low-cost air travel to Paris since last July, aiming, according to spokesman, Toby Nicol, "... to make Paris Orly our second European base after London Luton".

The implication is that easyJet would like to reroute through Orly some of its existing cheap flights from Luton and Liverpool to a range of European destinations.

EasyJet began discussions with Cohor, the body which distributes take-off and landing slots at Orly airport, when Air Lib, formerly the two companies Air Liberté and AOM, had to apply for bankruptcy last summer. Air Lib were requested to hand back about 40,000 of the 75,000 slots it controlled at Orly airport. It agreed to 35,000.

But last autumn the company changed its mind about the number of slots it was willing to relinquish. By January of this year Air Lib was willing to give back, only 12,000 slots of the 35,000 it promised.

EasyJet had been hoping to gain 20,000 of the slots given up by Air Lib, and the French company's behaviour led Ray Webster, easyJet's chief executive, to say: "It is scandalous that Air Lib has not fulfilled the terms of its restructuring It is a piece of blatant anti-competitive protectionism. This company should at least have the decency to abandon those slots it knows it cannot use."

When easyJet bid for the the available slots, Cohor awarded the bulk of them to Air Algeria, Iberia and Air Malta. EasyJet's, Swiss arm easyJet Switzerland, was given very few slots from Paris to either Zurich or Geneva.

Air Lib is still in a precarious financial position. It is also having difficulty convincing its workforce that low-cost is the way to go.